S is for Al Siebert: His Work On Resilience

Al Siebert did pioneering work on resilience. His superb books – such as The Survivor Personality and The Resiliency Advantage – enabled many people to develop their inner strength.

Al provided more than inspiring stories. He offered positive models and practical tools that enabled people to develop their resiliency skills.

They could then apply these to overcome challenges when using their strengths. He helped many people to make breakthroughs in their personal and professional lives.


Al spent over 50 years studying how people develop inner strength. A paratrooper in the 1950s, he remembered meeting the few remaining survivors from the 11th Airborne Division, a unit that had served in WWII and Korea.

Something about them made him sit up and take notice. They weren’t the gung-ho types: they had unusual qualities. He wrote:

“During our training I noticed that combat survivors have a type of personal radar always on ‘scan.’ Anything that happens, or any noise draws a quick, brief look.

“They have a relaxed awareness. I began to realize it wasn’t just luck or fate that these were the few who came back alive.

“Something about them as people had tipped the scales in their favour.”

Returning to college after completing his military service, Al resolved to study psychology, but he grew frustrated by its emphasis on mental illness.

He decided to study life’s survivors – those who grew when overcoming tough challenges. Scoping out the areas of study, he chose to focus on people that met four criteria:

They had survived a major crisis.

They had surmounted the crisis through personal effort.

They had emerged from the experience with previously unknown strengths and abilities.

They had, in retrospect, found value in the experience.

Al shared his knowledge by running workshops, giving keynote speeches and writing articles. He then came to international prominence with his book The Survivor Personality.

This groundbreaking book contains many stories about people who have overcome extreme challenges.

The situations they faced included, for example, sexual assaults, life-threatening illnesses, being prisoners of war, addictions, physical attacks and crippling accidents.

How do people cope with such adversity? Some don’t, says Al.

They feel victimised, blame other people, become helpless or lash out at others. Some people do cope with adversity.

Drawing on their inner strength, they stay calm, clarify the situation and chart their strategy. Committing to their course of action, they concentrate fully until they reach their chosen goal. Al wrote:

“They thrive by gaining strength from adversity and often convert misfortune into a gift. Are life’s best survivors different from other people?

“No. They survive, cope, and thrive better because they are better at using the inborn abilities possessed by all humans.”

Survivor Strategies

Al discovered that survivors adopt various strategies to overcome crises successfully. These include the following.

They quickly read the new reality

Survivors have experience of overcoming difficulties in life. As a result, they have developed a particular kind of savvy or personal radar. Al says:

“This quick comprehension of the total circumstance is ‘pattern empathy’.”

They read situations quickly and start considering the consequences. Other people ignore what is happening or bury their heads in the sand. Survivors click into awareness mode and take snapshots of what is actually happening.

They are positive realists and have
life-competence that helps them in emergencies

Survivors are life long learners. They love to explore and make sense of experiences. They prefer to take initiatives, rather than become institutionalised.

Such people are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude, but also quickly read reality. They then use their repertoire of skills to see patterns and deliver the required results.

They stay calm

Why? They realise it is vital to establish clarity. They must clarify what is happening and then make decisions about the way forward.

Al gives examples of hijack survivors who stay calm. They gather information about how the hijackers behave, look for patterns and explore potential exits – not only for themselves, but also for other people.

They maintain a sense of perspective

People who are diagnosed with a serious illness, for example, may then move to clarifying their assets.

Some people reframe the difficulty as a project. Looking at it from this perspective, they are able to remove themselves and plan the path ahead. Al points out that some people actually become more playful and laugh in the situation.

They are open to doing anything

Al Siebert found that survivors choose their strategies from a wide repertoire of options. One contributing factor is that they have a quality common to many peak performers.

Such people embrace what appear to be seeming paradoxes. They are able to see the big picture and the small details, to be focused and flexible, to be serious and playful.

This means they are able to see a wider number of options than, for example, people who have been trained to behave in one way.

They develop personal radar

Al found a link between survivors and peak performers. Such people have a sixth sense in the areas in which they perform brilliantly.

They seem to know what will happen before it happens. This is called personal radar.

Reflecting on his time with the paratroopers who survived battles, Al talks about them quickly ‘scanning’ situations. Looking for patterns, they asked questions such as:

What is happening? What isn’t happening? Are events following their normal course or is something else happening?

What are the patterns I can observe? What will happen if these patterns continue? What will be the consequences?

How can I build on the successful patterns? How can I deal with the unsuccessful patterns?

What action do I need to take? Bearing in mind the patterns that are occurring – and the potential consequences – how can I do my best to achieve success?

They take responsibility and
totally commit to doing their best

Survivors make their decision and then throw themselves into pursuing their chosen strategy. They employ every ounce of energy to reach the goal.

Such people are also able to balance the apparent paradox of being simultaneously ‘helicoptering’ and ‘hands-on’. They are completely committed to the task in hand, yet ‘hover’ above it to get perspective on what is happening.

People then do everything possible to reach the goal. As Al Siebert wrote:

The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully
and totally responsible for making things work out well

Al then expanded on the topic to produce another compelling book The Resiliency Advantage. Building on the theme of survival, Al focused on how people can thrive in a fast-changing world.

This calls for individuals, teams and organisations to develop their resiliency skills. Why? In the old days many people relied on institutions to tell them what to learn and how to behave. Nowadays people must manage increasing information, complexity and unpredictability.

Such events may include, for example, personal setbacks, sickness, redundancy, market changes, reduced budgets, technological changes, economic downturns or whatever.

People will need to deal with such challenges. This calls for them taking responsibility, seeing to the heart of the matter and making good decisions.

Even if they choose the right strategy, events may conspire to throw them off-track. They will need to recover quickly, practice course correction and do everything possible to reach their goals.

People who develop such resiliency skills are more likely to increase their chances of success.

Helping people to overcome traumas

Al’s work was extremely practical and always generous. During the brief interactions I had with him, he was encouraging and willing to pass on his knowledge. He shared his wisdom with people so that they could help others.

Al Siebert was one of the giants of positive psychology. His work encouraged people to develop their resilience, overcome adversity and express their talents. You can discover more about his work via the following links.



One of his most powerful pieces, for example, is called Guidelines for Listening to War Veterans. Here are some of his headline suggestions for listening to returning soldiers.


Be Sociable, Share!

2 comments to S is for Al Siebert: His Work On Resilience

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>