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  • Writer's pictureJenn Donahue

Jenn Donahue’s Story of Becoming a Resilient Leader


Many people ask me how I’ve become such a resilient person and leader, especially after all the highly stressful and intense experiences I’ve had.


And the truth is, it’s those experiences that have almost forced me to become resilient.


In my career, I’ve been shot at, my base has been nearly blown up, and I even had a contract out for my life in Afghanistan. With all this stress, I needed relief.

In order to manage, deal, and navigate these situations, I found that resilience is key.


Leaders don’t become leaders overnight. It takes failing, learning, and getting back up (sometimes in the midst of chaos and crisis) to find your way into true, genuine leadership. When you cultivate your own resiliency and create a resilient team, you can do great things… even in times of extreme stress.


I’ve learned to be a resilient leader through learning from my experiences and failures, leaning on those who have gone before me, and implementing resiliency training into my life and teams.


Reaching my breaking point to find resiliency


When I was younger, and much less self-aware, I would get really stressed out and I would shut down. My vision would narrow, I would pinpoint on what I needed to do and everything else didn’t matter.


It turns out, this way of dealing with things was really affecting my health and not to mention my relationship with my husband. I was working fifty to seventy hours a week between two jobs: my “normal” job in the civilian world and my military job as a Commanding Officer. I was under a lot of stress all the time.


Something had to give.


It wasn’t until I started to take resiliency a little more seriously, that I was able to regain health back in my life. I started to realize what the stress was really doing to me and so I put in my own little stress relievers (or stress valves) that I could tap into and turn on when I reached high levels of stress and needed relief.


Everyone has their own relievers that work for them. For me, my stress valve is working out. And during those times, I had to work out really hard to get through some of the stuff I was going through.


And now, it has changed to running. When I am stressed, I lace up my tennis shoes and go on a run. This, without fail, clears my head, gives me greater perspective, and allows me to face my challenges head on with a stronger mindset and more determination.


You don’t have to reach your breaking point to start implementing resiliency into your lifestyle or work flow. Find what works for you and practice doing it during times of struggle, stress, or challenge.


Creating a network of support


My resilient mindset didn’t form overnight. And I didn’t learn how to implement resiliency into my life all by myself. I had many mentors along the way that helped to paint the picture of what a calm leader can look like in challenging situations.

My mentor, Dr. Norm Abrahamson, worked on some of the toughest and most challenging projects in the world. When he was my mentor, I witnessed him in many high-pressure and tense meetings and he would always stay so calm and positive throughout them. He met challenges with curiosity and explored all paths to find the best resolution, all while exuding confidence and assuredness.


Mentors can provide a great network of support and can help you, too, stay calm in a crisis. Part of being resilient is realizing that you are not the first one to face tough times, and you can lean on and learn from others who have been through a similar situation.


The more support you have around you, the more confident you will feel facing problems head on. Remember to rely on those who are there for you. I call it magnifying your network. When you are really in it, whatever the situation may be, it’s sometimes the outside perspectives that help bring you back to yourself and allow you to return to a place of positivity and strength.


Knowing my own strength


One of the best ways I know how to tap into my own inner warrior in times of struggle is to reflect on some of the scariest moments of my life. It may sound counterintuitive, however, it can actually help you realize just how strong you really are.


When I’m in the middle of those highly stressful moments, I think of myself as a rubber band and try to imagine just how stretched out I am in that moment.

And then, I ask myself, “What has been the scariest moment of my entire life?” And I imagine how stretched my rubber band was in that moment.


How do the two scenarios scale in comparison?


Usually, the moment I am experiencing is nowhere near the maximum stretch I’ve endured in my past experiences. For example, when I can measure the stress I endured while leading over three hundred personnel to build a bridge across the Euphrates River (all with the possibility of operating under the threat of fire), it doesn’t even compare to the stress of putting together a PowerPoint for an important client. This allows me to almost immediately know that “I’m good” and “I got this.”


When you are able to recognize your own strength and remember what all you’ve endured and survived, you’re able to bring down the pressure and tension you’re feeling in the moment and get back to a place of calm and confidence.


For me, when I realize that no one is trying to kill me right now, I’m able to really relax and get my job done.


Oftentimes you’ll find that it’s only you that’s putting so much pressure on you and it’s only you that can release the pressure you’ve put on yourself. And when you remove that pressure, you find that you really can go on to do great things.

Resiliency is key in leadership


Resiliency is a key to becoming a successful leader, especially in our current landscape. With everything that is happening, it’s easy to get stressed out, shut down, and give up. However, as leaders who lead teams and run businesses, this isn’t always a practical option.


Leaders must choose to rise, even in the uncertainty and chaos of the ever-changing political and economic landscape, and support those around them through it, too. It can be a lot. That is why it is so important to focus on building your resiliency so that you can be a leader that your team wants to follow.


If you or your team wants to learn more about creating resilient cultures in the workplace, reach out to me and let’s talk about how we can make that happen.

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