Suffer in Silence: What Torture Chambers and Morgues Taught Me About Resilience

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

  1. Vulnerability is part of being an authentic leader and inspires trust.

  2. Leaders are expected to endure challenges and persevere through to successful outcomes.

  3. Humor is one of the greatest tools of effective leaders during adversity.

Perspective Approach Leadership Training Resiliency


In 2003, I was sent on my first combat deployment to Iraq as a teenager. One of the places I lived with the rest of my unit was inside of one of Saddam Hussein’s ancient torture chambers. The walls were black with centuries of human blood. Quite a sight for a teenaged boy from the Midwest.

In 2004 and 2005, I lived in a place called Hit, Iraq. Here, we slept in a morgue, on concrete slabs that used to house the dead bodies of the local populace. We really only cared that the room was cooler than the 125-degree temperatures outside, and it provided a modicum of cover against their daily mortar attacks on our position. The fact that a bunch of corpses were once laid on the exact same place that my poncho liner was now lying meant nothing to me besides, “Make sure you baby wipe that slab before you put your face on it tonight, Gents!”.

I understand that I may have lost a few readers after the first two paragraphs, but if you’re still with me, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Adversity is the crucible in which a person’s character is tested.


If you believe that Marines are told to look like a mix between Superman and the Terminator, you’d be right. One of the leadership traits that we are taught from day one in boot camp is bearing. We aren’t to show weakness. Suffer in silence. Pain retains, so if it hurts, you’re learning! If you still feel pain, that means you’re not dead yet, so be grateful! Stiff upper lip! And so it goes, on and on and on.

Yes, combat requires perseverance, and yes, it’s a far more challenging life to be in the military on a combat deployment where people are both actively and passively trying to kill you every single second of every day than it is to go to work in the civilian sector five days a week. However, there is a fallacy that in business, leaders must never show any sort of weakness or frustration at a situation. There is an element of truth to this, certainly, as leaders should not be complainers or divisive, and should focus their attention on improving morale. But there is also an inherent danger: that of attempting to be perfect or a Phony Pollyanna.

"79% of people stated that a leader who seemed to strive for perfection was unapproachable and insincere."

People want authentic leaders. A leader who strives to always look perfect sends a powerful message: that the leader cares more about what people think of them than helping their team look at a situation realistically and with honesty in order to overcome any challenges. Essentially, leaders who seek to look perfect in front of their people come across as vain and phony. Most of us have had a leader who always tries to plaster a smile on their face in a time of adversity even though they don’t have a solution. I’ve personally always felt that was a great way to inspire a lack of confidence in that leader’s abilities to assess a situation and to be candid with me.