President George Washington is arguably the most well-known leader in United States history. As a great leader, we know him from the Revolutionary War, the French and Indian War, a cherry tree, and the dollar bill. With that said, little is known about George Washington the survivor.
As a young man, George Washington was an explorer in a time when gentlemen of his caliber were not exploring the wilderness. Although he started his career surviving battles that seem based more upon folklore than fact, he went on to lead the forefront of bringing a presidential democracy to a society that had only known kings. Washington explored unknown territory with a fearless personality.
Washington was an adventurer and survivor. Our first president was also a survivor in the sense that he did not come from money, yet became the most famous man in America by his early twenties and eventually crafted the modern American presidency. Records of Washington show him questioning his abilities as America’s first president, but the survivor in him urged him to continue on and accomplish astounding feats, immortalizing him as America’s greatest leader.
Andrew Jackson was also a man who would never quit. Losing his siblings and becoming an orphan as a teenager, Jackson was alone in the world yet worked his way up from the bottom of the social hierarchy by challenging men to duels. Some records even claim he challenged nearly 100 men. After losing his first presidential election to Monroe, the survivor in Jackson learned that power and practically was the art behind the modern politics campaign.
Using this knowledge, Jackson made himself publicly visible and gained popularity by boosting his wartime success in New Orleans, which lead to the end of any British rule over America. Despite the death of his wife Rebecca from a heart attack during the election, Jackson went on to dominate the election and become not only the president but a living example of the ability to leap from the bottom to the top of the social-sphere. President Jackson was not only a survivor but a prime example of a great leader.
When the word “leader” is spoken, we commonly think of business persons, military leaders, and perhaps, religious leaders, but we rarely think of them as survivors. Think about the characteristics of a leader and compare them to a survivor. Survivors are strong, enduring, can keep a positive attitude when things are looking grim, can convince themselves and others that anything is possible, and keep a clear and focused mind when stressed beyond belief. These are the same characteristics I would use to describe a leader. However, we seldom look to survivors as our examples of great leaders.
Living in our modern world, most of us will never have to endure the struggles of survival that our ancestors faced a millennia ago, our survivors are of expeditions gone wrong, life threatening disease, and war. These individuals are living role models of a leader. Yet we forget to study them when attempting to learn about effective leadership.
We live in a society where people love reading books and enjoy binge watching shows about survival in the wilderness, natural disasters, and zombie apocalypse. All of which are entertaining and some provide us with excellent survival skills and knowledge. But almost entirely, they avoid the most important aspect of survival, the mental game.
In the book “Deep Survival,” Lawrence Gonzales talks about the mental aspect of survival and however well trained you may be in survival craftsmanship, it is your mental game during a survival situation that makes all the difference. Although going into every situation with the tools to be successful is a tremendous advantage, survivors are able to get out of bad situations using no tools at all.
The best survivors are the ones that analyze every situation they get themselves into and prepare for an array of scenarios that could play out. I am not saying prepare for a zombie apocalypse during your next family camping trip, but be prepared for getting lost, a bad storm, or injury.
By being prepared for every realistic possibility, it gives you the tools you need to survive. This same mindset is essential for leadership. Leaders must analyze every possible scenario and prepare themselves and their team for the situation. When preparing for a mission, the U.S. Military doesn’t assume everything is going to go smoothly, they prepare their troops for the worst, while hoping for the best.
Survivors also make it through by keeping a clear lens when things go bad and they realize their situation has changed so they can no longer act as they behaved before. When lost in the woods, survivors need to set a new bearing and head in a direction based upon their new known location. If they continue trying to get out without a new bearing they will continue to be lost until they luckily run into help or something terrible happens. By realizing they are lost, they can establish a new bearing and they are no longer lost. They can then adjust to the new situation and get out.
Sometimes surviving isn’t a matter of war or wilderness exploration. John Quincy Adams, our nation’s sixth president, was often reminded by his parents that as a man of privilege (his father was President John Adams) if he did not achieve national recognition and excellence, they would consider him a failure. John Quincy Adams eventually became president in what is considered a failed presidency. With that said, Adams was the first and to this day only president to become a member of Congress after his presidency. Accomplishing much more as a congressman than as a president.
John Quincy Adams is the story of a survivor who in a sense failed at greatness but learned from the mistakes he made and went on to accomplish astonishing things during his 18 years in Congress which he was a member of until the day he died, when collapsed while giving a speech and died two days later in the Congress building. He showed that when things don’t go your way, examine where you are and what you have for resources (in his case gained political status) and carve out a new path.
Corporate America is the same way. When I was working on a small technology project for an adventure enthusiast, we worked tirelessly for over a year on a great idea only to be beaten to the market by an almost identical product. Instead of aimlessly trying to move forward with a product that already exist, I realized we had an amazing team and a second project that we could work on with known interest in the market but no known competition, so we reset our bearing and head in a new direction.Survivors constantly remind themselves that things are not that bad. By keeping a positive mindset it allows them to focus on one thing, survival. When we focus on all the bad stuff that could happen our minds get wrapped up in everything that could go wrong. Just like when you are driving and you start looking at the side of the road then notice yourself drifting in that direction, the same thing happens with survival. If you start worrying about the bad, you fixate on it happening and it will, but if you focus on the good, it keeps you on track for success. There are so many bad things that could go wrong, but success is only one thing. Focus on that one thing.
There was once a man confronted with constant bombardment as his values were tested. He was appointed in charge of a major organization and presented a choice. Continue moving the mammoth machine that is this organization forward or conduct a progressive and unpopular change. Well, long story short, he chose to move forward with the change which resulted in him not being very popular during his time in charge. He wanted to be remembered for doing what he believed was the right thing and was a firm believer in legacy over evanescent popularity.
Well, Abraham Lincoln wanted to leave the world a better place than how he entered it and that is exactly what happened when he made the choice to follow his values and do what is right. He accomplished this by focusing on the positive. He understood what had to be done and focused on the light that brightened America’s future.
Finally, survivors never give up. When you quit early, you lose early. Survival is not a game that you want to throw in the towel. Just as unexpected events cause disasters, unexpected events can get you out. The longer you are surviving, the better your chance of overall survival. It’s a game of endurance and strength. In other words, don’t quit today because you don’t know what tomorrow brings.
When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in a pack of ice while attempting the cross Antarctica from sea to sea, he never quit. Sir Shackleton led his men on a 720 nautical mile journey to Elephant Island and eventually civilization on the island of South Georgia without the loss of a single life. This is not only a story of survival and endurance (no pun intended) but of outstanding leadership. Shackleton was able to drive his team forward under the harshest conditions by staying positive and cultivating a culture of survival amongst his men.
After attempting to climb Mount Everest and failing, Sir Edmund Hilary famously said, “Mount Everest, you beat me the first time, but I’ll beat you the next time because you’ve grown all you are going to grow…but I’m still growing.”
Sir Edmund Hilary went on to conquer Mount Everest, becoming the first man to reach its summit. He later went on to become the first person to reach both poles. After failing, he became stronger and accomplished amazing feats, being forever known as the first person to climb Mount Everest and reach both poles.
Obstacles, hardship, and disaster call for a deeper sense of being in a person, this being is a survivor, which more often than not is the same stuff we look for in our leaders. Some people believe hardship holds you back in life, I’m a firm believer that hardship is what fuels the fire people need to do amazing things. Learning about leadership in a book is one thing, acting it out is the only way a leader learn to lead, and when survival is at stake, you better take action and start learning.
By Chris Johnson
Christopher P. Johnson is an educator and co-founder/ head strength and conditioning coach at Boston Strength and Conditioning, LLC in Newton, Mass. He received his Masters of Management degree as well as his Bachelors of Science Degree in Sports Science from Lasell College, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree through the United States Sports Academy.