Leadership Counts: Staying Ahead of Stress Promotes Soldier Resilience
Many fundamentals of military leadership can be applied to ensure that soldiers, families and other members of the military community remain resilient in the face of psychological threats associated with the coronavirus pandemic. The importance of psychological resilience was recognized as far back as the 5th century B.C., with Sun Tzu’s recognition that wars are won by robbing an army of its spirit and depriving the commander of his courage. More recently, military strategist and author Lidell Hart wrote, “While fighting is a physical act, its direction is a mental process.”
Just as mental resilience is critical for traditional military missions, focus on the mental component of combating COVID-19 is equally vital. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville stated: “We are standing up to prevent, detect and treat COVID-19. This is a tough fight but together, we’ll do our part to help the nation win.” This effort includes mitigating the risk associated with the anxiety, fear and depression associated with fighting a pandemic.
In the context of this fight, it is essential to identify how leadership can boost the mental strength of the warfighter, help the Army navigate this unique challenge and minimize the negative impact on behavioral health. This point is reflected in Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession: “Successful organizations have leaders who … are proactive in mitigating stress or stressors.”
Consistent with this understanding, the Army must stay ahead of the psychological stress that comes with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, requirements for social distancing and the intensity of 24/7 news coverage. By considering behavioral health as early as possible, leaders can proactively address what have been regarded as invisible wounds of war.
In recent years, we have learned much about invisible wounds of war—wounds characterized by psychological trauma, anxiety and depression. During deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, behavioral health conditions have resulted in 10% of medical evacuations. Although the fight against COVID-19 is a fundamentally different war, leaders must consider the emotional toll that comes with fighting the pandemic and how to best lead units in managing this invisible threat.
The impact of leadership on mental resilience and behavioral health is astonishing. Research at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, documented that when soldiers view their officer and NCO leadership as effective, the rate of those in the unit that meet the screening criterion for any psychological problem is 5.8%. On the flip side, if soldiers feel their officer and NCO leaders are ineffective, the proportion of those soldiers that meet the screening criterion for any psychological problems rises to 22.6%. Toxic leadership translates into what amounts to a fourfold increase in risk of psychological problems.
Do the Right Thing
That’s why one of the most effective methods of reducing the negative impact of high stress levels on behavioral health is strong, supportive leadership. Indeed, ADP 6-22 emphasizes the importance of considering both the welfare of subordinates and the mission: “Having genuine concern for subordinate health and welfare generates motivation, inspiration, and influence—it is the right thing for leaders to do.” Leaders who engage in behaviors targeting specific concerns of unit members can mitigate stress that would otherwise undermine soldier health and performance. Cultivating leadership behaviors that target specific soldier concerns can provide a pathway for leaders to follow despite the novel nature of the COVID-19 crisis.
A new line of research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is addressing the impact of stress on behavioral health and the role of leadership in mitigating this risk. There are leadership behaviors that can effectively supplement good leadership in targeting key outcomes, such as sleep leadership, rear detachment leadership and combat operational stress-control leadership.
Managing Combat Stress
In one 2014 study, more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan rated their leaders on behaviors that emphasized management of combat stress. When soldiers viewed their leaders as using combat management stress techniques, even after accounting for ratings of general leadership, soldier behavioral health was better and soldiers were more comfortable seeking behavioral health treatment. Soldiers reporting high levels of combat exposure benefited the most from these leadership skills.
In another study, published in 2017, more than 300 deployed health care staff answered questions about their level of burnout and about their leaders. Medical staff were asked whether their leaders promoted staff member health by, for example, encouraging medical staff to take care of themselves physically, take care of themselves mentally and take breaks to recharge. The more leaders engaged in these behaviors, the less burnout medical staff reported, even after accounting for general leadership ratings.
A third study, this one from 2018, focused on soldiers during a mandatory 21-day quarantine following their deployment to West Africa in response to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Providing a unique glimpse into how soldiers respond to quarantine and the potential health threat of infectious disease, data indicated that when leaders endorsed and engaged in behaviors that directly promoted preventive health measures, soldiers had more positive attitudes toward the quarantine and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, even after accounting for general leadership skills.
Collectively, these studies demonstrate that although good leadership is important, it is not enough. Leaders who focus on promoting better health have better unitwide outcomes.
What does this teach us during an unprecedented period of uncertainty and invisible threat? Leaders need not only be effective in a global sort of way; they have an opportunity to target their leadership to address the stress underlying the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following techniques, adapted from a checklist developed by Amy Adler and Ian Gutierrez at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, are leader behaviors that can target relevant outcomes during a prolonged period of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic. These behaviors include ensuring leaders themselves are managing their own stress and checking in with themselves to make sure they are on track.
1. Share information. Sharing information with the team establishes communication and trust. This requires leaders to stay up to date on the latest developments and share that information with the team. It is important to control rumors, so be comfortable letting team members know when you do not know the answer.
Check in with yourself: Are you updating your team regularly?
2. Connect. Physical separation should not mean social isolation. Connecting with others can help prevent people from feeling isolated and alone. As a leader, running regular meetings—even remotely—provides structure and stability to the team. When meeting, focus on strengthening your team’s sense of community and shared purpose. One easy thing to do is to set up a group text to check in regularly with direct reports.
Check in with yourself: Are you connecting with your own leaders and teammates?
3. Recognize limits. Stress can diminish people’s ability to process complex information. This is a time for leaders to overcommunicate and repeat key points for the team. Be patient if someone makes a mistake or isn’t tracking. Build in redundant checks for critical pathways to reduce human error.
Check in with yourself: Are you making simple mistakes? If so, are you taking time to recharge during this crisis?
4. Maintain physical resilience. When we take care of ourselves physically, we can better handle stress. Ensure you and the team are prioritizing sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise.
Check in with yourself: Are you remembering to take care of your physical health as you lead during a prolonged crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic?
5. Maintain psychological resilience. Mental resilience skills can help people manage stress and stay strong. Watching too much TV coverage of a crisis can make people feel overwhelmed. Keeping a detailed to-do list helps keep things manageable during a crisis. Providing positive reinforcement to yourself and your team can help get you through stressful moments.
Check in with yourself: During a prolonged crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, what mental resilience skills have you integrated into your daily life?
6. Normalize stress. It is important to acknowledge the impact of stress, letting unit members feel more connected and less emotionally isolated. You can recognize your team’s stress by reinforcing that we are in “uncharted territory.” As you lead your team, remember that individuals differ in how they cope and manage stress. Provide team members the psychological safety to talk about their personal stress and its impact on them personally and professionally. Additionally, it is important to recognize that high achievers are likely to feel even more stress during a crisis.
Check in with yourself: Have you acknowledged your own stress level to someone?
7. Seize the moment. Leaders can reframe a crisis as a critical opportunity for the team to contribute to the shared mission of supporting their community. Reminding the team of the important mission at hand and the role the Army has in helping the nation defeat COVID-19, for example, can be helpful. Everyone has an essential role to play, no matter their rank or occupation.
Check in with yourself: How can a crisis provide a leadership opportunity?
8. Control the controllables. Reduce stress and save energy by focusing efforts on what can be controlled and accepting those things that can’t be controlled. Encourage team members to identify and focus on those items they can control. Have team members practice deep breathing and mindfulness when things start to feel like they are out of control.
Check in with yourself: What is within your control? What do you have to accept?
9. Take the long view. This is not a sprint. It is not even a marathon—it is an Ironman triathlon. Remember to be kind to yourself and the team.
Check in with yourself: Are you pacing yourself?
Army Regulation 600-20: Army Command Policy states: “If leaders consider their soldiers’ needs and care for their well-being, and if they demonstrate genuine concern, these leaders build a positive command climate.” It is critical that leaders at all levels provide tools and support soldiers’ need to excel under unprecedented conditions of uncertainty.