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Resilience: It’s a Group Thing

written by Dave Shearon 17 May 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

We tend to think of resilience as an individual quality — I or you, he or she. We define resilience in terms of the individual’s behavior after an adversity. However, in this as in so many other areas, Chris Peterson’s summation of the key findings of positive psychology applies, “Other people matter.” Let’s think together about that.

Of course, we know feelings, thinking patterns, and even eating patterns are contagious. So, if you are surrounded by happy, hopeful, optimistic, resilient individuals, you are also likely to manifest those qualities. On the other hand, if you interact with negative individuals regularly, then it will be more difficult for you to react resiliently to adversities. NightmareIn the education world, Kent Peterson and Terry Deal use the term “keepers of the nightmare” for those faculty who just can’t wait to explain why something won’t work because a previous effort failed. In law, the leading consultant to professional consulting firms, David Maister, has concluded that law firms just cannot be managed like other firms because lawyers’ are too habituated to adversarial, negative ways of thinking and communicating. Put them together in a group, and there’s no chance of getting over the Losada line.

Sometimes, others can pull us back from non-resilience. I have just finished reading Joker One by Donovan Campbell. Mr. Campbell, a Marine lieutenant, turned twenty-four, got married, then left for Iraq. For nine months during the winter, summer, and early fall of 2004, he led a platoon of 40 men in Ramadi, the site of some of the heaviest sustained fighting in Iraq. His battalion took more casualties than any Marine battalion since Viet Nam.

Marine carrying child Through the early days of the fighting, Lt. Campbell’s platoon, “Joker One”, did not have a single casualty. Lt. Campbell was awed by the way young, untested Marines consistently chose not to return fire when there was an undue risk of injuring non-aggressive Iraqis. He focused his energies on preparation and planning to lead his platoon to accomplish their missions, but also to bring them all back.

Medical Evacuation

Medical Evacuation

Then, one day, it happened. Probably the most-loved man in the unit had both legs amputated by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) while the platoon was guarding a school and providing medical attention to children who had been injured by an earlier RPG. The medics managed to stabilize the injured marine and he was evacuated. He even made it out of Iraq. But he died before he made it to the trauma hospital for additional treatment.

As time wore on and still others were injured or killed, Lt. Campbell writes of becoming depressed. He wasn’t functioning well, although he still went out leading the platoon. What snapped him out of it?

Marine leadership He saw the men in his platoon stepping up and doing what needed to be done, including some functions that were his responsibility. They were putting him out front and following, but the leadership was, in many ways, coming from the bottom up. The men were extremely well-trained, deeply committed to their mission, and cared deeply about one another. That was enough to let the group keep functioning even through a leadership slump. Their high functioning pulled the leader back.

So, what about the groups we are in? Are our workplaces, communities, and families calling forth and sustaining our resilience? Or, are they infested with keepers of the nightmare? Have we created sustaining, positive cultures that regularly operate above the Losada Line? Or have we let habits of critical thinking, focusing on weaknesses and threats, and adversarial communication patterns create cauldrons of negativity that corrode resilience like powerful acids? These are important questions. Resilience is not just a personal quality. It’s also a group thing!



Campbell, D. (2009). Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. New York: Random House.

Deal, T. & Peterson, K. (1999). Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership (Jossey-Bass Education). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Nightmare courtesy of Sundance Kid
Iraq (injured child being carried) courtesy Army.mil
Drawing of Medical Evacuation by Kevin Gillespie for the version of this article appearing in the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
1st Platoon Leaders courtesy Sgt McCauley

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Nicholas Hall 1 June 2009 - 3:34 pm

A – MEN !
So frequently in my life it has been those around me who have sustained me and pulled me from the “cauldrons of negativity” focusing on weaknesses and threats, and back into self-empowerment and positive outlook. Yes, habits of mind are contagious!
Thanks for the reminder, Dave. 🙂

Christine Duvivier 1 June 2009 - 3:35 pm

Hi Dave, Thanks for the great article and reminder of the importance of positive (or negative) contagion in groups. Thanks for sharing the story of the team holding-up the leader — although it happens in business, it’s powerful to think about it in a life/death situation.

A thought-provoking article, thanks!


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