Sharpening the Edge – Following Adversity

By Stuart McRae
City Administrator
City of Sheridan, Wyoming

I thought this week I would talk about how we react when we meet great adversity…and the fact that even then we are being evaluated.

The predecessor to the CIA was the Office of Strategic Services or OSS.  The OSS was founded by a brilliant man named William O. Donovan.  The OSS needed self-reliant, outside-the-box-thinking, resilient individuals, so one of the techniques Mr. Donovan employed to weed out people who would be a liability while operating behind enemy lines was to create a sense of failure in them and see how they reacted to failure.

During initial evaluation of candidates, men and women applicants were told to enforce various personal security protocols and given “pretend” classified information they had to keep others from knowing.  They then underwent a series of rigorous evaluations and tests of various kinds.  They were sleep deprived, went without food, and all kinds of other means of testing their mettle.  At the end of the testing some failed for real, but regardless, every participant was told that they had failed.

Afterwards, they were observed as to how they reacted to being told they had failed.  No longer ostensibly required to play by the rules, and in a post-test, relaxed environment, did they now divulge the “pretend” classified information they had been given to fellow students.  Some did and others continued to maintain their cover stories.

This was the actual test, however, and even though some had actually, achieved the initial standards and hadn’t been broken during the obvious testing, they later failed the overall intent of the exercise.

When we face adversity and maybe are told that we have failed, how we react says so much about our inner character.  What we maybe forget is that we are continuing to be observed and how we react may play into what happens next.

When I was in College, I worked at a local newspaper.  A couple of co-workers and I inadvertently did something that resulted in all three of us being fired.  When I was called into the Circulation Director’s office, the other two men weren’t around.  I admitted to my part in what had taken place, but explained that I had never intentionally done anything wrong.  I was derided as though I was a criminal and I left feeling extremely low.  I learned later that the other two, when confronted, had each lied denying that the event had ever taken place.  I thought my time at the newspaper would be a bad footnote in my past, when two weeks later, I received a call from the publishing editor.  He had considered my reaction and offered me a job back with the company with an even greater amount of trust.

You never know if a reaction of calmness and overall humility in the face of adversity will make a positive difference, but it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that a bad reaction will have the opposite effect.  Something to think about.