A Former Fighter Pilot Shares Her Best Advice for Facing Adversity

A Former Fighter Pilot Shares Her Best Advice for Facing Adversity

Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski explains how to go beyond resilience and grow through adversity.
Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski

Nicole Malachowski is a combat veteran, the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, a White House Fellow and an inductee into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.

Malachowski’s 21-year Air Force career came to an end when an illness left her struggling to speak or walk for almost nine months. Drawing on stories from her life, Malachowski spoke at CHA’s Transforming Quality Conference on how to successfully navigate change, adversity and the unknown to lead through times of crisis.

How can health care professionals navigate change and adversity?

Fully accept that change and adversity are part of the human condition. None of us are immune to failure, mistakes, challenges or the unexpected. Let go of the idea that life should always go smoothly.

Our ability to successfully move through challenging moments is dependent upon our willingness to self-reflect, learn and transform. I also often remind myself: “The runway behind you is always unusable; all you have is the runway in front of you.” What can you do, right now, with what you have, to move forward?

What is the greatest lesson you learned experiencing “headwinds” with your squadron?

I’ll start by answering this with a question: Why do we often wait for headwinds, or a crisis, to innovate or bring out the very best and hidden talents of others? You successfully navigate headwinds by being prepared, by having practiced contingency plans and through tailored leadership.

Do you know each team member as an individual? Have you asked them what they think their strengths and areas of highest contribution are? Have you asked them what their definition of success is and how you can help them achieve it?

When people know you’re authentically invested in them, they’ll reward the team with their best skills, trust and loyalty. And those three things are the magic needed to navigate hardships. It’s all about tailored leadership.

How is “resurgence” different than “resilience” and why is it important?

I believe both traits are important to navigating life’s challenges, but the differences lay in the context of the adversity. To me, resilience is the ability to endure hardship and to “bounce back” to your prior self. An example could be failing a test, learning from your mistake, studying harder, then passing the test a second time. Resilience allows us to be forward-looking and helps us not ruminate on the past.

To me, resurgence is a completely different level of comeback. Resurgence is about reinvention, and it’s about personal transformation. Life will sometimes throw us completely unexpected curveballs that we could never have prepared for. These are what I call crucible experiences, moments in time that fundamentally change who we are.

Navigating this kind of adversity requires you to grow in ways you could not have predicted. You come out of these crucible experiences forged into a completely new person: stronger, wiser, oftentimes humbler. In these cases, there is no bouncing back to your old self (resilience), because your old self is gone. Resurgence is about embracing the newer, better you. Resurgence gives us a new starting point to move forward from.

What is the key to leading through crisis?

This may seem simple, but I’ve found it to be true: calm and precise communication. Ask yourself, is what I’m about to say or do going to add to the chaos, or will it bring calm and confidence? Your team will be looking to you for reassurance, confidence and direction. Your behavior will set the tone others will mirror.

Positive leadership is not about giving false hope or making promises you can’t deliver on. It is about your mastery of self-awareness and self-control, both of which can make or break a team’s confidence.

Experience transformative keynote speakers like Nicole Malachowski at CHA’s Annual Leadership Conference, which brings together thought leaders to share and discuss new possibilities in children’s health care.

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