ATD Blog

Leadership and COVID-19: Lessons From Wilderness Survival

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The U.S. Air Force has known for decades that teaching wilderness survival skills through its elite Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program could help build leadership skills that last throughout its participants’ lives. As all of us have suddenly been thrust into remote work, new levels of physical separation from personal connections, and uncertainty about what comes next, these same survival lessons are relevant and can offer leaders helpful parallels with managing their organizations and teams during the COVID-19 era.

The framework of survival priorities helps us name the feelings we and our teams are experiencing, while core wilderness survival priorities offer up useful ways to claim some measure of agency and control and equip our organizations and teams to not just survive but possibly even thrive.

Survival Pressures

The following are four survival pressures and four priorities most relevant and helpful to leaders and their teams during this time:

1. Fear/Anxiety
Think of the dread and worry that the COVID-19 pandemic injects into your work life and environment. Reggie Bennett, co-founder of the Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School and former SERE instructor, breaks the fear element of wilderness survival into these most common components, all of which have clear parallels to the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Fear of Darkness: Wilderness survivors describe how they experienced the dread of nightfall. The work parallel is the darkness of not knowing.
  • Fear of Ridicule: Upon returning to society, some survivors who have been lost in the woods describe having significant trepidation about being judged or criticized. “How could she have been so unprepared?” Who doesn’t have similar thoughts and fears about our leadership during the uncertainty of it all?
  • Fear of Suffering and Death: Even a previously simple trip to the grocery store can provoke anxiety as we try to limit our potential contact with the virus. These are real fears that leaders and their teams are expending significant mental energy grappling with.

2. Sleep
Dealing with a major crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, can significantly disrupt any leader’s ability to enjoy regular, restorative sleep, which can lead us to become even more exhausted. Like a hiker lost deep in the woods and barely able to sleep, we can become disoriented, lose our ability to make decisions, and experience hampered reflexes. Maximizing sleep each night is essential to your cognitive and emotional well-being and to your ability to maintain team rapport and connection during these days of social distancing.

3. Boredom
Like being stranded in the woods alone for days at a time, being confined to our homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be repetitive and tedious. Many who experience living alone in the woods also describe a slow-down of time and ennui that comes with it. Without the ebb and flow of a normal business day, the monotony of daily sameness can quickly sap willpower and motivation, diminish self-care and resilience, and make you even more susceptible to the stress polluting your work environment.

4. Isolation
An ever-growing body of research shows how loneliness debilitates people, leaving them anxious, emotionally unregulated, unmotivated, and physically unhealthy as well. Even in a world of social media and tech-fueled connection, we can still feel “alone together” as sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle describes it. As inherently social creatures, we require some baseline of community and contact to live and perform at our peak. Virtual happy hours help but have their limits.


Survival Priorities

Categorizing and naming these four “wilderness” survival pressures, or triggers, is critical. It then helps you with the next step: tackling four core survival priorities.

Priority 1: Positive Mental Attitude
When most of us think about survival situations like being stranded on a desert island or lost in the woods, our minds often conjure up visions of survivors as lean-and-mean survival machines. As it turns out, decades of research and case studies show that the physical aspects of survival are a distant second to the mental. The psychology of surviving is the X factor—and that means keeping a positive mental attitude (PMA).

PMA is about maintaining a reservoir of mental toughness, an ability to reframe and focus, and a resilience defined by strength, purpose, and perspective. Laughter and gratitude are the two components of PMA consistent across survivor stories, and we suggest that you build them intentionally into your daily work life.

Priority 2: First Aid (for Self and Others)
An extra challenging element of wilderness survival is injury: burns, cuts, scrapes, sprains, breaks, or concussions. In organizations and families hit hard by the COVID-19 ripple effect, the “mechanisms of injury” can vary widely—reductions in hours, lost wages, demotions, home school challenges, and dried-up client contacts.


Your role as leader is first to take care of yourself as best you can. Self-care isn’t selfish—you do it to position yourself to provide critical first aid to “injured” colleagues. Just as you’re instructed on every airline flight, put your mask on first. Then, instead of reactively opting for “fight or flight,” we can instead choose to “tend and befriend” those in need.

Priority 3: Fire Craft
This is the part of wilderness survival classes that gets people most excited. Part of it is the exuberance that happens when a group finally gets their fire started with basic tools. The other part is the effect fire and warmth have on PMA.

In many ways during these unprecedented days, the leader’s craft is fire craft. Purpose, connection to the mission, making a difference—those are the organizational equivalent of fire. Against the backdrop of a virus crisis that threatens to extinguish much of what keeps us engaged and makes many of us warm, your survival depends on keeping yourself and others alive to and aware of the mission and meaning that continues to flicker at work, at home, and in society. You must think and act with intention around how you can tend “the fire” and keep it burning strongly and brightly.

Priority 4: Signaling
Any outdoors person will tell you that a whistle and signaling mirror are must-haves whenever you enter the wilderness (food and water are last on the list). Why? They’re how you can effectively call for help and help rescue teams rescue you. Unfortunately, and all too frequently, when we find ourselves trying to survive a crisis, we first attempt to go it alone. Like a lost hiker, send up a signal when you need help. Surviving a crisis isn’t a solo activity. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness at all—in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

If you consistently, intentionally accept and understand the four wilderness survival pressures then address the four wilderness survival priorities, you can make things better for yourself, your friends and family, your teams—and even grow from the effort and experience.

About the Author

Bill Adams is co-author of The Toxic Boss Survival Guide: Tactics for Navigating the Wilderness at Work. He has been with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) since 2008. He co-founded and serves as the leadership solutions partner for CCL’s Government Sector, providing advice and oversight for CCL’s work with government clients. His specialty is advising learning and development managers and designing, developing and delivering custom leadership solutions for federal government managers and executives.

Bill has designed and implemented highly-regarded programs for the Intelligence Community, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, and other federal agencies and affiliated contractors. He co-facilitated an organizational intervention for the U.S. military and State Department in Iraq promoting inter-agency cooperation in support of strategic national objectives.

In the private sector, Bill has worked with Fortune 100 companies and non-profit organizations with clients in the aerospace, engineering, manufacturing, pharma, healthcare, financial services and energy sectors. He has worked internationally in Europe and the Middle East and with participants from six continents.

About the Author

Craig Chappelow brings over 20 years of classroom experience working with managers and executives from across a wide variety of industries including financial services, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. He is an expert in using behavioral-based assessments to help individuals strengthen their self-awareness and increase their effectiveness in leadership roles. While at CCL Craig has delivered open-enrollment and custom programs in 21 countries. He is co-author of The Toxic Boss Survival Guide: Tactics for Navigating the Wilderness at Work.

About the Author

Before joining CCL, Peter Ronayne spent 15 years as a dean and senior faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute (FEI) in Charlottesville, Virginia. While at FEI, he directed the flagship Leadership for a Democratic Society program, launched FEI’s Center for Global Leadership, and co-founded the institute’s “NeuroFed” program on neuroscience and leadership.

A senior faculty member and portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership, Pete’s multidisciplinary background and experience serves the Center in his design and delivery responsibilities for open enrollment and custom programs, and various Global Solutions clients, with a focus on public sector leadership and organizational development.

Pete co-edited The Trusted Leader: Building the Relationships that Make Government Work, a collection of essays on values-based and collaborative leadership in the public sector. He co-authored Biography of an Ideal, a history of the US Civil Service and The Toxic Boss Survival Guide: Tactics for Navigating the Wilderness at Work, and he is the author of Never Again: The United States and the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide since the Holocaust.

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