Embracing Shared Adversity: A Path to Shared Purpose, Resilience and Unity in America

by | Jun 27, 2023 | Interviews, Mike Sarraille | 0 comments

In a modern polarized America, the idea of shared adversity is more relevant than ever. It’s crucial to find elements that can bring us together and strengthen our national character. One such element, evidenced by the U.S. Special Operations Community and reflected throughout our history, is shared adversity. When embraced as a path to resilience and unity, this concept could reshape our social fabric and unite us in ways we’ve forgotten.

The Power of Shared Adversity & Creating A Shared Purpose

The Navy SEALs, known for their rigorous training and unwavering commitment to excellence, stand as a shining example of the power of shared adversity. Their six-month training program, BUD/S, is one of the most demanding military courses in the world. BUD/S has an attrition rate ranging from 70% to 85%, underscoring the extreme physical and mental challenges trainees must endure. Yet, it’s through these shared hardships, these nearly insurmountable trials, that the SEALs forge unbreakable bonds among their ranks.

Research suggests that shared hardship and discomfort, despite its unpleasantness, may have positive social consequences, acting as a sort of ‘social glue‘ that fosters cohesion and solidarity within groups. This phenomenon, exemplified by the special operations community, indicates that adversity can be a powerful tool for uniting people and fostering a sense of shared purpose.

Are Hardships Necessary to Forge Shared Resilience?

Sebastian Junger, in his book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” provides a compelling exploration of this concept. He shares the experiences of Bosnians who, during the war, described feeling closest to their community. In the face of extreme hardship, they found themselves at their best, as unity and cooperation were not just ideal but necessary for survival.

America itself has felt this unity in the face of tragedy. After the 9/11 attacks, the nation came together in a display of solidarity and mutual support that bridged political, racial, and socio-economic divides. In the wake of a horrific event, America rediscovered its shared resilience. Do we have to wait for a devastating event to stimulate that sense of unity? With proper leadership, the answer is no.  

Regrettably, this concept of shared adversity is one of the largest missing elements in business, higher education, and government. Leaders often recognize the value of tough, experiential training in creating cohesive teams and fostering a sense of belonging. However, when a leader advocates for adversity-based training it is usually struck down by Human Resources departments and corporate lawyers due to litigious concerns or the fear of perceived prejudicial treatment against physically unfit employees or those who may get their feelings hurt, all under the guise of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives.

While DE&I is undeniably important, it shouldn’t be used as a justification to avoid shared adversity. Instead, it should serve as a guideline to design inclusive, experiential training that respect individual abilities and limitations. The goal should not be to exclude but to create an environment where everyone can experience and overcome challenges together, thereby fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.

The Value of Shared Adversity in Leadership

When leaders understand and share in the challenges their teams face, they’re better equipped to foster an environment of mutual support and understanding. This not only strengthens the bonds within the team but also promotes a more humane, empathetic style of leadership that recognizes the value of every individual. This could involve creative problem-solving exercises, team-building activities that challenge groups to work together under pressure, or even opportunities for employees to collaborate on meaningful social impact projects. Regardless of the form it takes, the key is to create shared experiences that challenge, unite, and ultimately strengthen the team.

On a civil level, some national leaders advocate for proactive ways to incorporate shared adversity into the fabric of our society. Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, the former Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commander, has been a vocal proponent of mandatory federal service. He suggests that such a program could help bridge societal divides, foster common bonds, and instill a sense of shared purpose through the shared hardship of serving one’s nation.

General McChrystal’s proposal is rooted in the idea that engaging in a common mission under challenging circumstances can break down barriers and foster a shared sense of identity. Federal service could take many forms, from military service to community development projects, environmental conservation efforts, or supporting the elderly and infirm. The key is that it involves shared effort, sacrifice, and ultimately, shared achievement.

The proven cases of Special Operations, the Bosnians during the war, and America after 9/11 demonstrate that shared adversity can be transformative, creating strong bonds and a shared sense of purpose. It’s time we applied these lessons to all aspects of our society, using shared adversity as an integral part of our human experience and as a catalyst for unity, understanding, and collective strength.

United in adversity, we can navigate the challenges that lie ahead, demonstrating the true strength and spirit of America. As we face future adversities, whether economic downturns, natural disasters, war, or societal changes, the bonds formed in hardship will carry us forward, proving that we are always stronger together.