It was some ungodly hour. All we had between the pair of us was a map and compass, a heavy load in our backpacks, water to last a couple of hours, an increasingly low number of sweets and a cryptic grid reference to see us to our next checkpoint.
Snow and hail had assailed us for the better part of 18 hours as we clambered over the Brecon Beacons in Wales. Exhausted and close to the breaking point, mentally drained from the need to count our paces and position ourselves on our map, we were drawing upon the last vestiges of drive and motivation as we demanded of ourselves to not only survive, but to grow and thrive.
As part of an arduous military training exercise, these experiences were designed to teach resilience and to prepare us for the battlefield. But these formative lessons in resilience have proven equally relevant in the boardroom.
Sometimes resilience is mistaken for the concepts of robustness or perseverance. While there are close ties between the three, they aren't the same.
Robustness is about strength and power. Perseverance is the ability to carry on tenaciously in the face of adversity.
Resilience, on the other hand, is more appropriately applied when an individual or a team or an organization has overcome, and grown from, an adverse, complex and often unfamiliar experience.
Being robust alone does not lead to enduring success. Witness the fall of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch during the financial crisis, or the collapse of automotive giants General Motors and Chrysler, which had built entire cities around their plants.
Equally, perseverance alone does not translate to success. A long list of entrepreneurs have tried and failed – in spite of prolonged, diligent hard work through tough times.
Resilience is not only the product of the individual, but depends on the bonds that hold a team together. From the outset of military training, the importance and relevance of the team is consistently reinforced. On Day 1, my fellow officer cadets and I were formed up into platoons. These platoons were broken down into three sections of eight to 10 cadets and at the core of the section was the fire team of four.
The fire team is the building block of the military structure; on exercise or operations, the members of that team eat together, sleep together and fight together. Through a series of increasingly complex, diverse and unique challenges, the strength of these bonds is tested and reinforced as the team grows and learns to overcome new conditions and a paradigm of resilience becomes entrenched.
In battle, the soldier fights for the man next to him. While there is admiration appropriately bestowed on an individual who does something gallant or heroic, a successful mission is consistently understood as a product of the resilience of the unit. In fact, according to Clausewitz's On War, defeat in war occurs when the enemy's will to fight is broken. When the bonds that keep a team together are ultimately severed, there is no will to overcome. Resilience has been dismantled. The battle is lost.
The same is true in business circles – from the corner office to the factory floor.
An organization can develop robust processes and procedures, but as new competitors emerge and market conditions change, these structures will make the company obsolete.
Similarly, a corporation can offer incentives to employees with the promise of lucrative financial gain to motivate the team to work hard and persevere through the long hours in the office, but ultimately this approach can turn employees into mercenaries who could be seduced by similar promises made by the competition.
If resilience and an enduring presence are the goals, a company needs to invest in its people and its teams – and not wait until those individuals reach the executive suite. Investment in resilience needs to take place at the grass roots with the working teams to establish the bonds necessary to help the organization overcome, thrive and grow in a very challenging marketplace.
Inspiration is out there. The Invictus Games, recently held in Toronto, offered a notable example of resiliency in which wounded veterans from all over the world competed against one another; each not only overcoming their injury, but exemplifying the final lines of William Ernest Henley's poem Invictus, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul."
Likewise, Ottawa city councillor Jody Mitic, who was a sniper in the Canadian Armed Forces and was injured in Afghanistan, became the runner-up during the first season of The Amazing Race Canada. He is a bestselling author, public speaker and was elected to represent Ottawa's Innes Ward in 2014.
As an infantry officer, my own resilience was driven by my commitment to the platoon. I was willing to work hard and work late, push myself to learn, grow and quickly adapt to the new circumstances. The success of the platoon – and the lives of my soldiers – depended on it.
In industry, I have discovered that this quality of resilience has proved invaluable – whether studying for an MBA, working in financial services or in the management of early stage technology companies.
I often remember scrambling from checkpoint to checkpoint through those unforgiving Welsh hills. At the time, I recognized the importance of completing the exercises for the benefit of my military career. Today, I know the lessons learned extend beyond the battlefield.
David Mack is a former British Army officer, an MBA graduate from the Smith School of Business at Queen's University, and a practice lead in resiliency, teamwork and leadership at Reticle Ventures Canada (reticle.ca).