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Improvise, Adapt and Overcome: The Marine Corps’ Unofficial Culture of Resilience


After retiring from the Marine Corps, I joined the team at Kaleo Coaching because of our shared commitment to building others up to succeed at the good work they are called to do in their communities. People and teams face much resistance, especially when aspiring to have a positive impact, and I view that resistance much in the same way that Marines view friction as it relates to the battlefield. Friction may be mental, as in indecision over a course of

action, and my time in uniform taught me a lot about being resilient when faced with friction, but perhaps not how you would think. 


“Since war is a fluid phenomenon, its conduct requires flexibility of thought. Success depends in large part on the ability to adapt—to proactively shape changing events to our advantage as well as to react quickly to constantly changing conditions.”

  Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting


Most people probably know the Marine Corps by its core values—honor, courage and commitment; or its official motto—Semper Fidelis. But the Corps’ unofficial mantra, “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome,” taught me more about resilience over the course of my career in the Marines than “Always Faithful” ever did. Our unofficial motto describes a culture of flexibility while the official values of the Marine Corps tend to emphasize steadfastness and stasis. Firm steadfastness is necessary at times but should only be wielded in the service of flexibility. True resilience is the ability to adapt. 

Google “resilience,” and this is what you will find: 1. The capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. 2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. Oxford Languages would have us believe that resilience is about withstanding difficulties and quickly recovering. The image is of a rubber ball bouncing back into shape.


But that is not how psychologists define resilience, and it’s not what I learned as a Marine.


According to the American Psychology Association (APA), resilience is “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”


Withstanding adversity is coping, which is synonymous with “managing,” “getting by” or “making do.” Yet we want to do more than just endure difficulties and get by. Especially when dealing with trauma or risk to life, this is a significant battle, and employing a flexible way of thinking is required.


The image of a good Marine is one of unyielding resolution. But “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome” nests perfectly with the Marine Corps’ official warfighting philosophy, codified in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting, originally published in 1989. It is the “authoritative basis for how we fight,” based on “rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver.” The Commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, General Al Gray, added in the foreword that the manual was “...not just guidance for actions in combat, but a way of thinking in general.” It can’t be overstated how intensely Warfighting is revered, taught, examined, referenced and debated in Marine Corps circles. Yet, it’s possible that we still haven’t fully understood the power in Gen Gray’s comments in the foreword: 


A way of thinking in general – not just guidance for actions in combat.

Can longstanding doctrinal tenets in Warfighting offer any new ways to think about resilience? I think it can.

William Lind, in his Maneuver Warfare Handbook, wrote about and credited a U.S. Air Force Colonel named John Boyd with synthesizing the precepts of maneuver warfare based on a pattern of historic battlefield victories: "One side had presented the other with a sudden, unexpected change or a series of such changes to which it could not adjust in a timely manner… Colonel Boyd asked himself, what did all these cases have in common? The answer was what is now called the Boyd Theory, which is the theory of maneuver warfare."

John Boyd’s theory forms the heart and soul of Warfighting. Col Boyd never wrote a book himself, instead he gave a series of lectures. In his most well-known lecture, “Patterns of Conflict,” Boyd said, "you can isolate someone physically and mentally, but morally he has to do it himself." If one is morally isolated, they cannot abide by the standards deemed acceptable by others. This brings about a shame response, which goes hand in hand with isolation. Physical isolation is disconnectedness and separation; mental isolation is disorientation; but moral isolation, which is alienation, is the precursor for ultimate defeat.

According to Boyd, common among organizations that cannot adapt well in the chaos of war is a rigid and dogmatic ideology that will not allow for flexibility when confronted with contradictory information. Instead, rigidity causes ambivalence and paralysis, which leads to a turning inward, thereby blurring the connection between the organization and the environment. At this point, the folding-inward becomes an incestuous loop, amplified by an ever-increasing disconnection with the outside world. This physical and mental isolation will eventually lead an organization to moral alienation.

Now read that previous paragraph again and replace “organization” with “person.”

One could argue, as Steven Pressfield has in his book The Warrior Ethos, that the Marine Corps is “shame-based,” and has yet to fully adopt Boyd’s theory of trust and flexibility into its culture. The destructive forces of shame, ambiguity and isolation persist because they can often be quite effective in controlling behavior. But this type of cultural rigidity sabotages individual’s and the organization’s ability to adjust—instead individuals hide so as not to be publicly shamed. Self-imposed isolation is exactly how Boyd describes a defeated adversary, and how psychologists describe the warning signs of suicide—the extreme opposite of resilience.

Boyd presents a world view that both identifies variety, rapidity, harmony and initiative as constructive forces that result in success through adapting, and focuses on ambiguity, deception, and isolation as destructive forces that hinder adaptation. Countering the destructive forces while amplifying the constructive forces is the essence of his theory for success. Variety and rapidity can be understood as skills psychologists refer to as mental agility and reframing, while harmony and initiative come from moral leadership that inculcates trust and freedom to act. While we rethink ways to teach people these constructive forces, there must be a total commitment to countering the destructive forces of shame, isolation and alienation.

This is our roadmap for resiliency.

In February of 2015, General Al Gray, long retired by this point, participated in a recorded discussion panel on Warfighting: Gray asserted that maneuver warfare is “a thought process,” and it “empowers people, and helps people get involved in creative thinking…” He went on to challenge Marines to “go through an intellectual renaissance again about our profession and what we can do to be better. We need to do it in such a way that the young people that have fought so well know that none of that is lost; that they are good..."[1]

The APA definition of resilience and the latest findings from behavioral psychologists are much closer to “improvise, adapt and overcome” than the standard ways of thinking about resilience through commitment and fidelity. Amplifying mental agility, reframing and trust in individuals and our organizations through training is today’s challenge. But where to start?

In an article published on, Leah Marone, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist wrote that “building resilience begins with increasing your self-awareness,” and that “individuals with high levels of self-awareness and self-connection tend to be the most resilient people on the planet.”

This is right in line with what Kaleo Coaching aspires to do by introducing people and teams to their innate talents through Gallup’s CliftonStrengths. When you learn your natural talents, you'll realize that some of us approach adversity with innate adaptability, while others need to marshal strengths like positivity or responsibility to successfully adjust to difficulties. Psychological traits like adaptability and positivity do not automatically yield resilience, but they are tools that can be refined into strengths that an individual can leverage to improvise, adapt and overcome the challenges before them.

Contact us if you or your organization would benefit from hearing more about CliftonStrengths and resilience, or if you’d like to know more about leading your team through strengths-based workshops to better prepare for the resistance you may face as you work towards your goals.


[1] The entire video of the Warfighting Discussion Panel held at the Gray Research Center on February 24, 2015 can be found at:


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