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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.

Perspective Approach John Wayne Resiliency Training Leaderhsip

There are benefits when a leader recognizes and admits to having failures or needing help. After all, a leader exists because he or she has followers, which implies that the leader couldn’t do everything on their own anyway. Why would a leader strive to appear as though they can? Effective leaders assess situations, communicate the situation to their people, solicit feedback or recommend a plan, then execute. Nowhere in there did I say that the leader has to have the perfect plan with the perfect smile plastered on their face at all times. The flip side of that coin is the John Wayne mentality, to simply suck it up and never show weakness. Also a fallacy.

According to research studies by Gallup, nearly 79% of people stated that a leader who seemed to strive for perfection was unapproachable. And Forbes found that leaders who resist showing emotion during challenges are considered less trustworthy than leaders who exhibit a degree of stress to their people. Why? Because showing emotion (but not acting on it) is a positive way to encourage trust between leaders and their people.


"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." - Martin Luther King, Jr. -


Research by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, has shown that when men are presented with a stressful situation, they often engage the “fight or flight” instinct. They’re more likely to get aggressive and defensive when challenged, or they will withdraw into a solitary confinement. Additional research has shown that these two mental states are some of the worst to be in when making decisions. Women, on the other hand, typically seek to “tend and befriend” in a stressful situation. This means that they will seek the ideas and support of others and lend support to the team. Unfortunately, this often leads to results being made while more emotionally charged. The best results come when men and women are on the same team and are drawn together in pursuit of a common goal.


  • The least resilient leaders scored 12% on leadership effectiveness, while the most resilient leaders scored an 87%. - Zenger Folkman

  • A study of 1,300 CEOs found that resilient leaders were both more proactive and more reactive than less-resilient leaders.

  • Resilient Leaders are more coachable and willing to learn from mistakes and adversity than less-resilient leaders.

  • Resilience improves adaptability in leaders. The more adaptable a leader is, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome when presented with a challenge.


In 2011 I was on my fourth combat deployment to Afghanistan. I was a Platoon Sergeant and was on a patrol with most of my Marines when I heard the familiar sound of an explosion within a couple hundred yards. The radio chirped and I heard one of my Marines shout, “Contact!” and that their squad leader was hit. Corporal Amra stepped on an pressure plate Improvised Explosive Device, or IED. Think of it as a homemade landmine. He lost his leg from the knee down.

We took care of the good guys and the bad guys. I was very impressed by the initiative of my Marines in those moments, as well as the pilots maneuvering their Blackhawk helicopters less than three feet off the ground flying over 50 miles per hour. I watched as Lance Corporal Organo carried Corporal Amra, one of my most trusted squad leaders, on his shoulders to the helo when it landed. I jokingly told Amra, “Man, some guys will do anything to get out of a day’s work!”. He laughed. He was no longer in shock, and had just permanently lost his leg, and he laughed out loud.

Perspective Approach Marines Leadership Training Medical Evacuation Resiliency

On two occasions throughout my career in the Marines, I was privileged to ask very senior leaders what the best leadership advice they had learned over their 30+ year careers were. On both occasions they said the same thing: develop a sense of humor. Humor is one of the best tools a leader can use during adversity. It demonstrates several important things:

  1. Leaders who are able to crack a joke during a tough time show that they are not overly-adversely affected by the circumstances…that the situation doesn’t dictate how they feel. It shows that they are in control of their emotions.

  2. Humor creates levity and improves the morale of everyone nearby.

  3. A light-hearted comment at the right time reduces the stress levels of your people.


Here are a few simple ways a leader can improve resilience within their team and an organization:

  1. Recognize the situation for what it is. Be open, be honest, be candid.

  2. Communicate the situation to your people.

  3. Assess the mood of your people.

  4. Draw your team together. People (especially men) have a tendency to isolate themselves by challenging others or withdrawing altogether. Don’t allow this.

  5. Inject humor where appropriate to demonstrate leadership and encourage camaraderie.

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