This Ex-Army Officer’s Experience Shaped His Resilience & Discipline– Here’s How You Can Learn From Him

It’s been 12 years since Mike Whitelaw was living in a constant state of adrenaline and high pressure situations, never knowing what the next day, let alone minute, would bring.

It’s quite a different scene and pace, to his now Northern beaches lifestyle of morning runs along the coastline, followed by an ocean dip to start the day. 

This freedom is something Mike doesn’t take for granted– Because Mike hasn’t always had the opportunity to grasp lifes-little-wonders. Something we’re all experiencing in today’s COVID-19, business-not-as-usual, world.

I sat down with Front and Centre’s ‘Human Of The Week’, Mike Whitelaw, via FaceTime, and asked him few questions on how his time serving in the Australian Army has provided him valuable life-lessons– ones that are assisting him during today’s challenging times,

How has your background in the military shaped your discipline and resilience today?

“When I reflect on over 16 years’ service in the Army and what I have carried with into more recent times, there are a few things that stand out. 

The first is a sense of discipline – if you can stay focused, set and stick to an effective routine, look after your mind and body on a daily basis and commit to looking after those around you – you are on a good path. Clearly discipline is a big part being in the military but maintaining a high level of personal discipline is essential. 

The second is an innate ability to adapt to your circumstances and environment. In the context of a military deployment, 

I went from a relaxing summer at home with family and friends to being in an extremely dangerous environment in the Northern mountainous regions of Afghanistan in winter living in -12 degrees and having one sketchy satellite phone call home every 2 weeks or so, all in the space of one week.

Personal safety and security become relative to the environment you are in. Changes to that environment force you to quickly focus on what is important, what is real and what you can control. There are several parallels between those deployment experiences and being isolated at home for a few weeks during the current COVID19 pandemic. My wife even said to me a couple of weeks ago that from day one of the pandemic, I shifted into ‘deployment mode’. 

I think the deployment challenges of being separated from wider family, being confined to a small geographic area like an airbase and not having access to the normal liberties and luxuries or social activities means the current pandemic restrictions are not unfamiliar to me personally or to my family. This time, they are on the deployment with me!

Have the leadership skills you’ve acquired helped you in managing the current pandemic?

My military career has undoubtedly enabled me to embrace the role of being a leader. 

It’s all about the members of your team and the mission – whether that is a small team planning a discreet complex military operation overseas, a sports team you are a part of or the day to day running of a family – focus on the people around you.

Everyone is different in their understanding, their approach to and their strengths in being a leader but each of us is a leader in some form. The knowledge and skills needed to be a good or preferably a great leader, need to constantly evolve. 

A lot, but not everything, of what I learned about leadership at the Defence Academy and RMC Duntroon or practiced whilst in uniform and in my time since, is still relevant.

In the context of the current pandemic,

You shouldn’t stop what you are doing, stick you hand up and announce to everyone in the household ‘I am the leader here’. But what you can do is to detach from any situation, assess the context and the core issues, make a decision on what you need to do and execute on that decision. Everyone can be a leader. 

Many of the experiences and themes above can translate to both personal resilience and organisational resilience. If there is the discipline to stay focused on what is important, the ability to rapidly adapt to your environment and the confidence to lead – then you, your family, your community and your business will thrive rather than just survive times of disruption or a crisis. “

What do you see important for families and work in times of disruption?

  • Communicate frequently and deeply.
  • Respect each other – there will be grumpy days, happy days, tired days, highly energetic days, social days, distant days, busy days and everything in between. 
  • Be accountable. Your ethics, values and behaviours cannot be allowed to slip just because things are different or more difficult. Hold yourself to account and then you can hold others accountable. 

Stay tuned– Mike will be back next week with Part 2: On how to manage your team during a crisis and tips on how to successfully work from home! A big thank you to Mike Whitelaw for offering his story and advice. 

Mike Whitelaw is also the Director of Wandering Warriors, a fundraising initiative of the Australian SAS Association– “Providing support to returning special force soldiers transitioning back into civilian life.” For more information click HERE or follow them on Instagram or Facebook.

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