Live postcards from the PurpleBeach Experience 2017

By Richard Davies

Controlling your emotions is the secret of resilience

Date Posted: April, 6 2017

Staying in control of your emotions is the key to survival, says Colin Maclachlan, former member of the elite SAS regiment and star of the TV show “Who Dares Wins”. During his military career, Colin has been in some pretty extreme situations. On a mission in the Middle East, Colin was captured, stripped naked and subjected to a mock execution. Throughout this terrifying situation, he remained in control of his own fears, believing that only he could make himself feel scared. As Colin describes it, “You are the gatekeeper to your emotions - no one has the secret key but you.”

So why would companies want to recruit the expertise of someone who is an expert in close quarter assassination, who “knows how to kill with a paper clip”? The answer lies in the word resilience, a quality that is as important for executives in today’s uncertain business world as it is for soldiers in the combat zone. In Colin’s experience of warfare, overcoming the mental challenges are always more important than the physical. Faced with gruelling ordeals like the SAS selection process, the mentally resilient will triumph over the body builders.

As an organisation, the SAS has much in common with innovative organisations. Colin characterises SAS soldiers as “misfits”, recruited from all backgrounds. When they join the regiment, soldiers “lose” their rank. Everyone starts as a trooper – stripped to the core and “rebuilt”. They learn not to conform, for example by not saluting officers in other services. While soldiers are typically trained to follow orders without question, members of “The Regiment” are encouraged to challenge.

The strength of the regiment lies in its diversity and the fact that they are jacks-of-all-trades, rather than specialists.  If everyone looked the same, says Colin, it would be harder to blend into different environments. And the fact that diverse people get stronger at different times also has a calming effect on the team.

Colin challenges the conventional view of SAS soldiers as "experts in killing people". In fact most missions he took part in involved rescuing hostages.  While Colin thinks it is important to believe in your mission, actually it is the pride in a job well done that enables elite soldiers to perform in the most desperate environments.

Learning to switch off is a major challenge for elite soldiers accustomed to the extremes of operational intensity. According to Colin, the UK MOD invests heavily in “decompressing” people so that they can function in their home environment. Over the years, Colin has learned to relax by staying away from technology and sleeping with blackout curtains. He has also trained himself to solve problems by thinking about something at night; normally he will have “cracked it” by morning.

Having a sense of humour also is critical to survival, provided it is authentic. It provides a common thread that allows people to connect. Having a good old “Tommy spirit” with a cup of tea and bully beef enables people to cope with adversity. He describes life in the MOD as being “like a second family”.

In the military, much of the training is about dealing with the unexpected, because  “you  never know what’s behind the door.” It’s also important to stick to the mission: “we say the mission twice to keep us on track and make sure we are all heading in the same direction.” Colin also thinks it is essential to have a debrief, whether the mission has gone well or badly. But when it comes to the relative importance of plan, brief, execute, debrief, Colin is totally clear that “execute” is the most important.

And when faced with an unusually hard task, the SAS solution is to approach it one day at a time -  keep your focus on small steps, one foot in front of the other and eventually you will get to the finishing line.

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