Codify Your Purpose: Most people rarely take the time to reflect on their purpose. That ambiguity can lead to frustration, confusion, and despair in times of stress. Make the effort to articulate your purpose and why it matters in the larger picture.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Livingston.
Dr. David Livingston is a Partner at McChrystal Group, where he leads a team of subject matter experts, learning designers, and dynamic facilitators who develop and deliver custom learning courses and programs that leverage a variety of experiential learning methods to drive individual growth and higher performance for teams and organizations. His doctoral research focused on team adaptation in uncertain environments.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
JRR Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost,” and that phrase has summed up my professional journey from my earliest days. I was a high school teacher, a pastor, an environmental scientist, a program manager, an operations leader, a learning designer, and a consultant, amongst other things. But in the myriad of careers, I was always driven by a singular passion: to help people be better.
This passion was a natural outgrowth from being raised in a healthy Christian household with two parents who were elementary school teachers. They saw untapped potential in every person, and wholeheartedly believed learning was the “key” to their success. If a teacher could engage them in the right environment, they could unlock the magic of their potential to fulfill their God-given calling.
That same belief was etched into my core and as I wandered through the early days of my career, I grew obsessed with the study of leadership and became determined to build a career that involved designing meaningful leadership development experiences. To equip myself for the road ahead, I went back to school to complete my doctorate in Human Organizational Learning. It was in that crucible of ideas and perspectives that I began shifting my focus from individual leaders to the power of teams. I began to recognize that true transformation was always the product of a collective — a team, a tribe, a community. I turned my attention to focus on the Navy SEALs, finishing my doctoral work by studying how those units could rapidly adapt to shifting threats while still staying coordinated and aligned. Essentially, I wanted to understand the “key” to their collective resilience.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career as an environmental scientist, I was placed on a large federal project developing a massive database of equipment across every Naval base in the United States. It was excruciating, boredom intermixed with extreme bouts of frustration and computer glitches. When the contract was won the following year, 48 of the 50 people on the initial team refused the work. I was one of the two individuals who reluctantly agreed to take the project again and I was assigned the project lead. I had to beg, borrow, and steal resources to work the project. The frustrations and pitfalls remained, but we began reshaping the narrative one person at a time. In the third year, I gave the team a simple survey to gauge their engagement and I asked a random question at the end: if this team was an animal, what animal would it be, and why?
Not surprisingly, every answer was different and odd — from a golden retriever, to a turtle, to an evolving fish — but the common thread was one of perseverance, grit, and adaptation. We had transformed the climate surrounding the environmental project from despair to determination and we had embedded a new culture of resiliency that now saw problems as inevitable challenges that could be effectively solved by the power of the team. The simple lesson I learned was that true transformation is possible. It does not happen overnight, and it does not happen without pain, but it can happen.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There is a creative energy in the air at McChrystal Group, that comes from a mission-driven team of people who want to tackle an organization’s toughest challenges. Decorated military officers actively collaborate with young analysts and PhD scholars to contribute to building unique solutions that actually work. It is an intoxicating atmosphere that produces very real results for our clients.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am surrounded by people with astonishing backgrounds at McChrystal Group. My first manager at the company was especially impressive. Jeff Eggers had a decorated military career as a Navy SEAL and spent time advising both President Bush and President Obama. He also had an exceptional educational background, cowriting Leaders: Myth and Reality with General McChrystal while leading our division of the company.
However, what was most striking to me about Jeff was his humility and true care for his staff. In the midst of my first interview, as I was giving an illustration about my wife’s fight with ovarian cancer, he immediately interrupted and said, “Wait. Stop. How is your wife now? Is she doing okay?” It was a raw moment of empathy, and in that moment, I knew I had found a man I wanted to follow.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I particularly like Martin Reeves’ and Kevin Whitaker’s definition of resilience: “The capacity to absorb stress, recover critical functionality, and thrive in [new] circumstances.” While there is no perfect formula that produces this capacity, there are three basic building blocks that every resilient system shares, regardless of it being an individual, a team, or an organization. They are:
STABILITY — — AGILITY — -CONNECTION
Resilient systems are always anchored by a stable foundation. They have a clear purpose that allows them to weather times of disruption, scarcity, and conflict while remaining focused on their true north. This purpose anchors persistent priorities and routines that allow them to stay consistent even when everything else is swirling around them.
Paradoxically, resilient systems are also agile, proactively engaging with their environment, learning from teammates’ actions, and quickly adapting. They embrace a bias for action and refuse to be anchored to the status quo or other artificial constraints. They must take calculated risks, learn from their mistakes, openly share information, and then quickly adjust and reprioritize based on that information.
Finally, resilient systems have strong, reliable connections. They invest time and energy in building strategic — and authentic — relationships that allow information and resources to flow to the point of need. They build these relationships on a foundation of trust and proactively maintain a network of strategic ties who will provide guidance and support in times of need.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage and resilience are both virtuous characteristics that emerge in times of struggle and hardship. However, courage is momentary in nature. It is defined by a momentary decision. Conversely, resilience is a characteristic demonstrated over a long period of time. Courage can be exhibited by someone who would not be described as “courageous,” but resilience can only be displayed by individuals and groups who have grit, perseverance, and determination that have been forged in the fire and come out stronger.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
In 2010, my father unexpectedly passed away. My wife, Elisa, had found out the day before that she was pregnant with our first child. Without hesitation, she encouraged me to return to New York to support my mother through the grief. I returned a month later and the pregnancy progressed smoothly until the 20th week. During a routine checkup, the ultrasound technician identified a small spot one centimeter in diameter. Our concern grew as the spot had grown to 11 centimeters in a few short weeks. My wife argued with the doctors to keep the baby in utero for a few more weeks to allow him to mature, and they eventually settled on removing the baby via cesarean section at 35 weeks of pregnancy, at which time they would also remove the mass. Our son initially had breathing problems due to his prematurity, prolonging our stay with him in the NICU. While at the hospital, we received news of the biopsy. Our deepest fears had been realized — Elisa had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. The week we brought our son home from the hospital my wife began chemotherapy. Throughout the months of uncertainty, pain, and fear, I never saw a moment of despair or self-pity from my wife.
After the entire ordeal was over, I asked her about her extraordinary resilience I had witnessed. It came down to the same three ingredients: stability, agility, and connection. She had a firm foundation in her Christian faith and a clear purpose to be the best mother possible for our son. In the dark moments, it was that stability that allowed her to look past the immediate crises and stay focused on her larger mission. She was agile, embracing her role as an active player in her treatment. She adopted a bias for action while she experimented with different tactics to address her discomfort or frustrations. Finally, she relied on the relationships and connections she had proactively cultivated. She leveraged her network to acquire functional information, such as identifying the best specialists and the latest oncology research, and she leveraged her network to provide essential emotional support, leaning on friends and family to walk with her through the journey.
My wife has been in remission for 11 years and we have three amazing children. Those dark days over a decade ago often feel like ancient history, but the building blocks of my wife’s resilience — stability, agility, and connection — remain as strong as ever.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
As the pandemic took hold in the Spring of 2020, many organizations that provided leadership training battened down the hatches and waited for the storm to pass. Clients and competitors alike routinely told us that it was impossible to deliver high impact leadership training virtually. They could not imagine a video conference call could drive the critical conversations, poignant self-reflection, and authentic relationships that are required for real behavior change.
I vehemently disagreed. I knew that with the appropriate technology, right learning design techniques, and skilled facilitators we could still cultivate those powerful moments of insight and revelation. McChrystal Group built new processes and new curriculum in an agile fashion, embedding our best practices and learning from our miscues, to transform our business in the course of weeks.
Prior to the pandemic, only 6% of all our revenue was earned through virtual training, but in 2020, 78% of our revenue was delivered using these new capabilities. Not only did our business thrive, but even the quality of services also improved. In an aggregation of our post-event surveys, over 91% of all our participants said they would recommend our training to a peer. But the most satisfying evidence of our success came from a large federal client. The executive that we had been working with had refused for months to convert their in-person training to virtual despite our persistent requests. Finally, he acquiesced and agreed to do the first session virtually, but made it abundantly clear that all subsequent sessions would be in-person. At the conclusion of the first session, he called us up and simply said, “From now on, all of our training will be done virtually.”
The best antidote for the impossible is a resilient team who trusts each other and believes in the mission.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
In 2015 I joined the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) as a Senior Learning Designer, a major step up in my professional career. A year and a half later, I was unemployed — released as part of a downsizing when the company was acquired by Gartner. As I searched for work, my confidence evaporated, and anxiety became a constant companion.
But as month after month passed without an opportunity, I began taking time to reflect on my time at CEB and what would make me successful in my next role. I spoke with previous colleagues, mentors, and trusted friends who provided additional layers of insight and wisdom. I emerged from that period with a clear set of simple rules for me and a set of criteria to ensure I landed a job that aligned with my passions and ambitions.
DAVID’S SIMPLE RULES:
- Take action, make decisions. There is no room for fear-based passivity.
- Be confident and share your thoughts. You are an expert — act like one.
- Live what you preach. You know what good leadership looks like — now do it.
- Must be a tribe — team of extraordinary people you want to be a part of.
- Must involve creative problem solving — challenging work that really matters.
- Must provide autonomy — freedom to make empowered decisions.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
A previous mentor who served as a Navy SEAL Commander told me that Navy SEALS tended to rarely build a buffer into their planning. The high-stakes success of their plan required that they perform at the highest level of human capability throughout an entire mission, leaving no room for error or mistakes. At one point in his career, an Army Officer told him that this tendency was setting the SEALs up for failure. He explained that the Army Rangers, in contrast, planned for success at 80% capability: they built in extra time, extra resources, and extra personnel to their plan. That buffer allowed them to flexibly respond to changes while still executing the mission objective.
My mentor helped me realize that I never built buffers into my plans and that lack of buffer created a high level of stress that inhibited my resiliency. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to build slack into the system — more time, more resources, more personnel — and that slack has allowed me to overcome an onslaught of challenges.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Codify Your Purpose: Most people rarely take the time to reflect on their purpose. That ambiguity can lead to frustration, confusion, and despair in times of stress. Make the effort to articulate your purpose and why it matters in the larger picture.
- Strengthen Your Connections: If you begin reaching out to build key relationships when you need their help, you are already too late. You must identify critical nodes in your network and then proactively build social capital that can be leveraged in future times of need.
- Establish Your Guardrails: In times of stress, emotions can run high and that can result in poor decisions and destructive actions. Establish clear guardrails — simple rules — that allow you to make rapid and beneficial decisions even in the midst of turmoil.
- Know Your Capabilities: Studies show that only about 10% of people are self-aware. A distorted view of your capabilities can hinder an effective response to challenging circumstances. Proactively conduct a personal SWOT analysis so that you understand your limits and your strategic advantages.
- Build in Buffer: No plan survives first contact. The moment you face a significant challenge, that beautiful plan you constructed will no longer be relevant. Build in extra time and resources to provide you with the flexibility to adapt when the plan falls apart.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have managed my clinical depression for over two decades. Thankfully, my father, who also suffered from it, recognized the initial signs and encouraged me to get the help and medication I needed. He removed the stigma, likening the disease to any other chemical imbalance like diabetes or hyperthyroidism.
Depression is dark monster that feeds on isolation, doubt, and shame. As we see skyrocketing numbers of people suffering with depression, particularly young adults, we need to remove the extra yoke of social ostracization that so many carry.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Adam Grant, a #1 NYT Best Selling author and Organizational Psychologist at Wharton, is a fascinating scholar who has the rare ability to translate rigorous academic research into practical insight. It would be extraordinarily thought-provoking to hear his perspective on resilience over a cup of coffee.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!