Guest Post: How to lead through the crisis

March 11, 2009, 10:13 PM UTC

Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert

by Ben Sherwood

What does it take to survive the shock of losing a job or a home?

I’ve spent the last few years interviewing some of the world’s best survivors – those who got slammed by life and overcame almost every imaginable adversity. They were left for dead after brutal beatings, ravaged by cancer or broken by collisions with 20-ton trucks. Yet, each managed to recover, rebuild and grow even stronger.

What’s the secret of these most effective survivors? They draw upon strengths from a common psychological toolkit. What follows are four essential ways to outlast a crisis:

Flip the switch from inaction to action. Disaster, experts say, brings out three types of people: 10% of us are leaders, 80% are followers, and the other 10% are troublemakers who engage in self-destructive behavior. Are you in that 80%—bewildered amidst all the uncertainty, waiting for authority figures to tell you what to do? You are if you’re one of those people who, despite the warning signs, don’t start searching for a new job until your company practically goes under. This is like continuing to watch the on-board movie after you see the wing of your plane on fire. Psychologists call this “behavioral inaction.” The key to saving yourself is to extinguish the alarm bells in your head, make a plan and a backup plan, and take action.

Adapt (or else). Across every species, survival depends on adapting to new realities. Today, there’s no value in clinging to the way life used to be. A $60,000-a-year manager who gets laid off has to accept the notion that a $12-an-hour janitorial job may be best for a while. If you’re a seven-figure-salary banker, get real: A “survival job” is better than no job at all. Use it to get back on your feet. Rigidity will only keep you down.

Exercise your resilience. Thirty-two percent of us are born with a Resilience Gene: the 5-HTT serotonin transporter gene. These folks bounce back faster after life’s inevitable knocks. For the rest of us who aren’t genetically “inoculated” against stress, experts say to build your resilience like a muscle. Work it every day by practicing realistic optimism. Face facts but remain hopeful; build a support network; find a greater purpose. And stay healthy because physical reserve carries you a long way in a crisis.

Know thyself. One thing I know for sure: We’re stronger than we realize. All of us possess some of the tools required to overcome adversity. One key is to identify your survivor personality and take advantage of your strengths. Check out, where you can learn more about your survivor personality. It’s a helpful first step toward making it through ‘til tomorrow.

Ben Sherwood is the author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, a New York Times bestseller. He is executive director of, an online resource center and support network for people facing every kind of adversity. An award-winning journalist, he is a former executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America and senior broadcast producer of NBC Nightly News.