The Road to Resilience
Written by James Lee Witt, George S. Everly and Cheryl Burgess   

We all know the importance of being resilient on an individual level and we each have personal strategies for creating that resilience and ensuring our survival. But what strategies do we need to develop for our large-scale operations? How do we prepare our businesses and emergency management organizations to withstand a crisis and guarantee a rapid and complete recovery?

Any crisis, whether personal, business, community or global, can become a defining moment in the lives of both individuals and organizations – and it’s up to the leaders to determine whether those moments will be defined by resilience or disaster.

Continuing our 16-year mission, the Disaster Resource GUIDE has sourced information from three industry leaders with diverse perspectives: government, academia and business. James Lee Witt is a former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); George S. Everly Jr., is a Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Loyola University Maryland and The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, respectively; and Cheryl Burgess is co-founder and CEO of Blue Focus Marketing. Together, these experts will show us how organizations of every size and purpose will benefit by building a well-defined road to resilience.



Much of life is about building bridges – and keeping them in good repair. A personal support system connects you to others and builds bridges to help you survive the inevitable bumps along the way.

Relationships Pave the Road to Resilience
By James Lee Witt

It’s easy to talk about the importance of a personal support system, but building and maintaining one is something else again. Relating to people often includes conflict, especially during times of high stress. In my experience, the difference between success and failure is the difference between reaching out and digging in.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that the best way to lead is to reach out to others. Before I got to FEMA, there were walls between the managers and the employees. I’m speaking both figuratively and literally – they built private bathrooms, private elevators, anything to keep from having to mingle with the people who worked for them. On my first morning at FEMA, I stood at the entrance to the building and greeted every single employee as he or she came through the door. Later I instituted an open-door policy. Those small gestures went a long way toward getting those people in my corner in times of crisis.

I learned that once you are able to see your world as a conglomeration of customers, you’ve made the first step toward placing yourself at the center of a perennial personal support system. In government, people have traditionally taken a backseat to “programs”. Agencies are organized to run programs. Every program has an office, and in every office employees come to work in the morning and say to themselves, “What does my program need today?”

Credit: Adam Dubrowa/FEMA

At FEMA we began to define our customers as people either preparing for or recovering from disasters. The moment we decided to measure our success based on how those people were served, instead of how our programs were run, we were on the road to beating the crisis. But, we didn’t stop there. We broadened the idea of the customer to include everyone, both inside and outside the agency – the people in the next office, the congressmen on Capitol Hill, the FEMA staffers in the field, our counterparts at the state and local levels. If you accept that your job is to serve your customer, then there’s no place for the primacy of programs or the foster of fiefdoms.

Strong relationships don’t blossom overnight, and they usually can’t be planted in the middle of a crisis. In recent years, the term resilience has increasingly been used to describe the goals of business continuity and emergency management. Resilience implies an ability to bounce back from adversity.

Through the years I have become convinced that a resilient network of relationships enables individuals, corporations and communities to survive and even become stronger in the broken places.

Take-away: See everyone as your customer and aim to serve them to the best of your ability.


The above article was adapted from James Lee Witt’s book Stronger in the Broken Places.



There appears to be a growing consensus that organizations which best weather adversity possess a core culture of resilience – an atmosphere wherein growth is promoted, support is abundant and crisis is viewed as an opportunity. The organizational culture of resilience presents certain characteristics that are also found in resilient families.

Handle the Curves with Resilient Leadership - Create a Culture of Resilience by Building Leadership
By George S . Everly , Jr. , PhD , ABPP, FAPA

1. The organization’s human resources believe in the importance of organizational (unit) cohesion.

2. They have high organizational identification.

3. They celebrate key events and they create and uphold rituals and routines.

4. They believe in their ability to support, advocate for and protect one another.

5. They are optimistic about their ability to achieve organizational goals.

Build Resilient Leadership

In our book, Secrets of Resilient Leadership...When Failure is Not an Option (Everly, Strouse, Everly, 2010, DiaMedica), we propose that the organizational culture of resilience is achieved through an enhanced form of leadership that we refer to as “resilient leadership.”

Resilient leadership inspires others to exhibit resilience and to exceed their own expectations. It not only minimizes the detrimental aspects of a crisis, but uses the situation to foster growth, perhaps even gaining a competitive advantage.

Following are the four components of resilient leadership:



“ Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” – Gen. Colin Powell, Former U.S. Secretary of State

Our research has shown that there are two types of optimism: passive and active. Passive optimists hope things will turn out well. Active optimists make sure that things turn out well. They see the opportunity in adversity.


“ In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” – Warren Buffet, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

Writing circa 500BCE, the great military strategist Sun Tzu (Sun Tzu translated by Clavelle, 1983) wrote of a special form of leadership – that which we refer to as resilient leadership. Emphasizing strength and honor, Sun Tzu’s tome offers timeless advice for those who seek to lead during times of adversity:

• Be decisive; vacillation saps the strength of any army. If action is necessary, make it swift, act boldly. No one benefits from protracted conflict or ambivalent leadership.

• Follow the law of morality. “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved child, and they will stand by you even unto death” (p. 54).

Resilient leadership includes the courage to act, the willingness to take responsibility for decisions regardless of outcome, and the ability to engender trust, confidence and fidelity through a consistent pattern of acting with integrity.


Integrity is the quality of doing that which is right – considering not only what is good for oneself, but what is good for others as well. Integrity isn’t just a situation-by-situation process of decision-making; it is a consistent way of living and an essential characteristic of resilient leadership.


“ There is no such thing as a communication vacuum. If the leader fails to communicate, someone else will.1” – G.S. Everly, Jr., Fostering Human Resilience

Effective crisis communications can serve to mitigate anxiety and direct rapid and focused rescue, recovery and rehabilitative operations. Ambiguous and/or deceptive communications, on the other hand, can worsen mental health reactions and delay operational response and recovery.


To be most effective, I believe crisis communications must be formulaic. I recommend using the model shown below to determine what information should be addressed. Cover these points rapidly and repeatedly and most people’s needs will be satisfied, fear will decline and compliance will increase.

Resilient Moment Communications Model1 (Everly, 2013):

• What happened (or what is going to happen).

• What caused the disaster.

• What the effects were (or what they are anticipated to be).

• What is being done to respond to, or correct, the situation.

• What is being done in the future to prevent this from happening again.

Crisis communication imparts information and information builds trust, upon which resilient leadership will ultimately be built. If leadership fails to anticipate questions and provide answers, then an essential role has been abdicated.

Take-away: The only way to instill lasting change in an organization is to change its culture... and that change is best achieved by enhanced, resilient leadership.


Empower Others with Personal Resilience

“ You never know how strong you are until strength of mind is all you have – which is Psychological Body Armor.”

Resilient leadership practices inspire others to exhibit resilience and to exceed their own expectations. My colleagues and I call this personal resilience “psychological body armor”, because it protects us from potentially stifling, and even disabling, adversity. After all, true strength begins in the mind.

Credit: Steve Zumwalt/FEMA

There might be as many as seven key characteristics that individuals can learn, enabling them to develop or increase their psychological body armor, but I will review just three of them here:

• Active Optimism

• Tenacity

• Interpersonal Connectedness


When you first enter Johns Hopkins University you can feel that something is different. Hopkins is a rather unique place. Among its many accolades is that, at the time this is being written, Hopkins houses the nation’s top rated school of public health, the nation’s top rated department of psychiatry and for 22 of 23 years it housed the top rated hospital in the United States. Hopkins demands unwavering excellence of its faculty and staff. Some would say that working under such conditions would be burdensome, but for most it is not. For most it is motivating, even exhilarating. The key to prospering in such a unique environment I believe is what we call “active optimism.” You see it in the faces of the staff. You feel it. It says to those who work there, “We ordinarily perform in an extraordinary manner.” It says to those who are served, “It’s going to be okay, we have this one!” It is an optimistic view that seems to create its own destiny.

Optimism is the tendency to take the most positive view of matters – to expect the best outcome. Optimistic people are more perseverant and resilient than pessimists. They tend to be more task-oriented and committed to success. They appear to tolerate adversity to a greater extent and tend to be less depressed than pessimistic people.

What is fascinating is that when you ask most people if they are optimists, they say “yes.” Closer scrutiny, however, reveals an interesting dichotomy. There may be two types of optimism: passive and active. Passive optimism consists of “hoping” things will turn out well in the future. Passive optimists surrender control of their circumstances to someone or something else. Active optimism, on the other hand, is “acting” in a manner to increase the likelihood that things will indeed turn out well in the future. Active optimists believe they can make a difference and choose to take control over circumstances. They expect success and, thereby, create a self-fulfilling prophecy (as you believe an outcome will accrue, the likelihood of that outcome actually increases). In the eyes of the active optimist, every crisis holds an opportunity and every setback holds a set-up for success.


The second element of psychological body armor is tenacity. Perhaps the best predictor of success within any given endeavor, it virtually defines the concept of resilience. It has been said that the only difference between humankinds’ greatest successes and its most dismal failures, has been the willingness to try again and again... and again.


The careers of Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Milton S. Hershey, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Harland Sanders are testimonials to the power of tenacity. I often advocate the “Rule of Three.” Simply said, don’t even consider giving up until you have failed at least three times. Calvin Coolidge is credited with saying…“Press on! Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.”


The third element of psychological body armor is interpersonal connectedness and support. This element may be the single most powerful predictor of human resilience and is a cornerstone of psychological body armor. In the military, the mantra is “unit cohesion, unit cohesion, unit cohesion.” In the social and business worlds, sometimes it really is whom you know and the strength of the bond that counts. Perhaps you’ve heard the term esprit de corps. It refers to a sense of unity, identity, common interests and responsibilities held by a group of individuals.

Supportive groups and networks may be identified by six characteristics.

1. A cohesive, unifying identity. Simply said, people identify with the group.

2. Group competence. The group is successful. Failures are viewed as exceptions to the rule.

3. The willingness and ability to collaborate within the group.

4. An environment wherein interpersonal and sub-group communications are fostered.

5. A cultural context, i.e., a group culture that fosters personal and group success and promotes resilience… no one left behind!

6. Commitment to the mission, or group goal. The power of the group is focused upon the long-term success of the group.


The benefits of these networks and interpersonal support in general have been long known. Charles Darwin, writing in the late 1800s, noted that a tribe whose members were always ready to aid one another and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes. In our efforts to understand the secrets of the extraordinary resilience of US Navy SEALs, interpersonal support and esprit de corps emerged as imperatives. In other words, a supportive network is the key to building resilience.

Overall, psychological body armor is that personal quality that helps people withstand adversity and make good decisions even under pressure. It motivates them to achieve peak performance and allows them to bounce back quickly and effectively even when they are knocked down. The characteristics of psychological body armor can be learned by employees and stakeholders, but it takes resilient leadership to show the way.

Take-away: Active optimism, tenacity and interpersonal connectedness are the cornerstones of psychological body armor.


1 Everly, GS, Jr. (2013). Fostering Human Resilience, 2nd ed. Ellicott City, MD: Chevron.



Crisis management at Southwest Airlines begins and ends with a strong, empowered social employee culture. Effective communication during times of crisis or disaster must be built into the way a company does business. That way, whenever the next critical challenge arises, employees won’t lose time wondering what they should be doing; they will already be ready to respond. By inculcating a culture of preparedness, which is guided by their philosophy of always doing the right thing, Southwest Airlines has emerged as an always-ready brand in the face of crisis.

One Company Drives Home the Value of Resilience - How Southwest Airlines Builds a Culture of Preparedness
By Cheryl Burgess

Internal Culture Radiates Outward

Southwest Airlines operates on the philosophy that if the employee is cared for, informed and happy, then the customer will be as well. Long-standing internal initiatives such as the Culture Committee have not only given employees from all departments a voice at Southwest headquarters, but they have often given those employees direct support out in the field as well. If Southwest executives want their employees to operate as paragons of helpfulness and compassion, then they make sure to treat their employees with the same helpfulness and compassion they want to see embodied in those employees.

Credit: jerandsar/Flickr

This spirit affects even the smaller, person-to-person challenges employees may encounter. For instance, when a longtime Southwest customer had a bad experience with his baggage, he wrote an open letter to the company in the form of a pop culture collage ( The company not only worked to respond quickly, but Southwest social employees replied in the same fashion with a pop culture collage of their own ( Even in smaller exchanges such as this, Southwest employees do what they can to add a compassionate, human touch to whatever professional assistance they can offer.

Called to Action

During the attacks of September 11, 2001, this attitude became characteristic of Southwest’s overall response to the crisis. As flights across the country were grounded, Southwest planes were forced to land at airports the company didn’t service. This meant that, despite the confusion that characterized the myriad events of that day, flight staff did not have access to the normal ground support either for themselves or for their passengers.

But this didn’t stop Southwest employees from doing the right thing and providing assistance to their passengers in any way they could. In one instance, a Southwest pilot ordered Amtrak tickets for all the passengers on his flight in order to keep them moving on their way to their respective destinations. In another instance, after personally helping to get all the passengers off the plane, a different pilot used his credit card to buy pizza for everyone, offering them some semblance of normalcy and comfort in the chaos of the day.

Credit: Shoshanah/Flickr

Building a Communications Infrastructure

As the largest domestic transporter of passengers in the United States, Southwest has a relationship to catastrophic events that is quite unique. When a disaster strikes, the airline must be prepared to deal with not only the impact the event will have on business operations, but also how it can provide resources and assistance to customers, employees, and often rescue and aid workers as well.

During the events of Sept. 11, Southwest employees found quite often that the most efficient way to convey information was through telephone. By the time Hurricane Sandy hit in late 2012, the company had a much more specialized internal structure designed to handle multiple different scenarios. In the case of Sandy, the Weather Disruption Task Force was called into action, monitoring and coordinating events through a specialized disaster room. Both employees and customers were kept in the loop in real time through the internal-facing SWALife and external-facing platforms.

Because Southwest had established a culture of preparedness, the company had the foresight, experience, and resources available to direct activities in multiple states, deftly providing leadership and support to both employees and the public.

Doing the Right Thing

Aside from its responsibilities as an airline, Southwest approaches events like Hurricane Sandy asking what can be done, both by the company and by individuals, in a spirit of mutual aid. In the case of a catastrophic weather event, Southwest Airlines naturally had the resources to provide transportation assistance for a variety of different relief efforts.

Credit: jronaldlee/Flickr

In one example, Southwest offered free rides to groups of New Orleans firefighters, who were more than happy to repay the State of New York after that state’s firefighters had assisted in Hurricane Katrina relief years earlier. Large numbers of Southwest employees also volunteered their time and other resources to help transport dozens of orphaned dogs, cats and other pets from Long Island after the storm separated them from their owners.

Further, assistance like this wasn’t simply given to those affected outside of Southwest’s ranks. Although no Southwest employees were hurt or killed during Hurricane Sandy, many had their homes damaged or destroyed. The company has been very active in providing resources and other assistance to those affected by the hurricane.

This is what it means to be a social employee – not using technology or engaging in networks, but making sure that every interaction is authentic and provides value, whatever “value” might mean in the moment. Building a culture of preparedness stems directly from these values. Crisis management happens well in advance of the actual crisis, and it begins by making sure that your employees don’t just know what to do in a given situation (especially since this can change at a moment’s notice), but that they know why they are doing it.

Take-away: A culture of social employees empowers everyone to respond when the next critical challenge arises.



Large regional disasters that affect multiple neighborhoods, crossing state lines and disrupting multiple industries, are all too common. That’s why communities, businesses and governments have a responsibility – personally and collectively – to take actionable steps toward building resilience.

Share the Road to Resilience
By James Lee Witt

Credit: Wavian/Flickr

It is important to remember that relationships pave the road to resilience and ultimately, to survival. Communities are most resilient when they prepare together and work together – neighbor helping neighbor. Families should be encouraged to develop household action plans and neighborhoods should do the same. In the broader community, the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) program teaches participants disaster preparedness skills that allow them to assist others immediately following an event when professional rescuers may not be available. (For more information, check your State Directory at

Businesses can also benefit from enhanced relationships. Resilient business leaders know that disasters are personal and seek to find opportunities to partner with their employees. For example:

• Offer employees training on personal preparedness for themselves and their families.

• For anticipated events, such as hurricanes, consider a plan to evacuate employees and their families to a safe alternate facility.

• Consider offering a “Disaster Relief Program” to employees. Program offerings can include concierge services to secure basic needs, financial grants, or low cost loans to meet urgent needs.

Businesses play a vital role within communities, providing the economic growth that enables residents to return to their neighborhoods. Without an economic base, communities cannot return to normalcy. Providing employee services post-disaster not only preserves the business, but also, in many cases, preserves communities.

Public-private partnerships are also vital to increasing community resilience. When businesses and local first responders, community leaders and elected officials develop partnerships, they leverage their strengths, creating a culture of resilience for all.

This edition of the Disaster Resource GUIDE: Relationships and the Road to Resilience recognizes that increasing resilience requires participation at all levels: individual, community, business and government and that relationships are critical to successful disaster preparedness, response and recovery. We must work cooperatively, leveraging our strengths and planning around our collective weaknesses. This resource guide seeks to facilitate a discussion on how communities, businesses and the government can benefit from collaboration – we are strongest when we stand together.



About the Authors


Mr. Witt was appointed by President Clinton as Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in April 1993. In February 1996, Mr. Witt was elevated to cabinet status, a first for a FEMA Director. Mr. Witt coordinated federal disaster relief activities of 28 federal agencies and oversaw the National Flood Insurance Program, the U.S. Fire Administration, and other proactive mitigation activities. From 1993 to 2000, Mr. Witt directed 2,500 employees and oversaw more than 350 disasters. He was responsible for response and recovery operations for some of the most devastating disasters of all time, including the most costly flood disaster in the nation’s history, the most costly earthquake, and a dozen damaging hurricanes. He is credited with turning FEMA from an unsuccessful bureaucratic agency to an internationally lauded all-hazards disaster management agency.



Dr. Everly is Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Loyola University Maryland and The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, respectively. In addition, he is Executive Director of Resiliency Science Institutes at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County Training Centers where he teaches programs in resilient leadership, crisis communications, and psychological body armor. He is the author of the Gold Medal-winning book Resilient Child and the acclaimed Secrets of Resilient Leadership: When Failure is Not an Option. For further information contact:



Cheryl Burgess is CEO and cofounder of Blue Focus Marketing, an award-winning social branding consulting firm whose goal is to help build brands from the inside out. Ms. Burgess’ article is a summary of the chapter “How the Southwest Way Creates Competitive Advantage” from her Amazon bestseller The Social Employee (McGraw-Hill, 2013), coauthored with Blue Focus Marketing co-founder Mark Burgess. They can be reached at their website (