Sunday, April 14, 2024

Rethinking Resilience: How a Former Psychologist With the NZ SAS Has Served Her Country & Is Helping Others Thrive

A former psychologist with the SAS, a former UN Military Observer who narrowly escaped death, and now a consulting organisational psychologist, Alia Bojilova has spent decades researching and helping people build resilience. She talks to Sarah Lang.

Psychologist Dr Alia Bojilova says “resilience is my thing”. Her first book The Resilience Toolkit: A Proven Four-Step Process To Unlock Your True Potential (HarperCollins) has just been released. Expect expertise, insights, science, case studies, tips, and practical exercises that can help you build and sustain your resilience.

Alia is, as she writes, “a complex map of many pieces. I am a mother, a wife, a retired soldier, a director [of a consultancy], a partner in two companies – in New Zealand and globally – a coach, a psychologist, a mentor, a member of many communities, a friend and importantly a proud resilience geek.” 

Right after finishing her Masters in Organisational Psychology, she joined the NZ Defence Force in 2005. Less than a year later, having completed her registration as a psychologist, she joined the New Zealand Special Operations Forces (NZSAS) – the elite special-forces unit of the NZ Army – and served there as a lead psychologist and officer until 2011.

A few NZDF roles and deployments later, Alia served as a UN Military Observer in Syria, with a mission spanning Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. In Syria, Alia and two colleagues were taken hostage by 38 heavily armed militia members. The outcome looked grim, but the trio talked their captors into releasing them. This hostage scenario helped Alia narrow her search for her PhD topic to the link between curiosity and resilience – and she completed her PhD after returning home. 

After leaving the NZDF, Alia took up corporate roles between 2015 and 2019, as an organisational psychologist. She then expanded her portfolio into organisational, team and individual resilience, focusing on sectors including tech, commerce, peak-performance sports, the creative industries, government, and not-for-profits.

Currently Alia is a registered psychologist and partner at Propel Performance Group – an international consultancy with a mission to elevate leadership intelligence – and she is also Leadership Operating Partner at Movac Venture Capital, which invests in and partners with entrepreneurs to accelerate them.

Alia lives in Auckland with her husband and their son Alex, eight.

Here’s Part 1 of our two-part conversation.

How do you feel about the book coming out?

I expected it to feel like fireworks but it actually felt grounding. I feel proud of it. In terms of focussed attention, I started it two years ago but I’ve been accumulating the concepts and content since at least 2013.

You write about the ABCD of resilience, which stands for awareness, belonging, curiosity and drive. Were those the obvious pillars of your book, or was it ‘oh I need a great acronym’?

It was genuinely an organic process! There are four steps, not in the book, called: recognise, re-anchor, re-orient, re-engage, which is a military approach in dealing with acute change. But ABCD is more relatable, it fits perfectly – and ‘Sesame Street simple’ helps when you’re in a pickle. I thought ABCD needs to live in a visible place [the book] because it has a much wider scope.

Many people think of resilience as the ability to ‘bounce back’.

I have real issues with resilience as ‘bouncing back’ only. We’re not designed to be energiser bunnies always in a state of restlessness. What’s important is actually that state of stillness – sitting with the impact of an experience and learning from that.

You researched curiosity and resilience in your PhD. I didn’t expect resilience to be so strongly correlated with curiosity!

Well, when you really look into the mechanics of our thoughts, actions and feelings, this connection is a no-brainer. But I did have a little ‘aha moment’ when I landed on this. What gave me validation was testing the connection between curiosity and resilience in environments where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it [including the military]. Curiosity is essential to resilience, even if it’s just being curious about why your thoughts and feelings are lurking – and where you stand in the face of a particular predicament.

When you wrote at the start of a chapter that you owe your life to curiosity, I thought you were speaking generally. But you explain that you and two fellow UN Military Observers were captured by terrorists in Syria – and you were ‘debating, discussing and pleading for our lives’.

Yes. We negotiated our release. We had to talk our way to it.

You write that “our minds were busy studying, painting pictures, building assumptions, developing theories and noticing emotions as – given the opportunity – any of these things could come in handy”. I imagine I’d just freeze, so how did you push past your terror to focus on practical strategies?

I think most of us assume we’d freeze, but deeper survival instinct kicks in, irrespective of whether you’re trained [in the military]. In our case, the event was horrific and overwhelming at first, but we found our desire to continue [our life] was a lot stronger than that freak-out mode.

Does that incident feel like a bad dream or an experience that shaped you?

I genuinely look at it with gratitude. When I contrast that [experience] with other exposures, everything else becomes a little easier!

You got a NZDF Meritorious Service Medal and the United Nations Commendation for successfully leading your team through incidents in Syria. How did that recognition feel?

Uncomfortable. Others had been in far more confronting situations. It’s difficult not to be humble if your greatest military achievement is for talking too much!

Why become a UN Military Observer?

In the military family, being a UN observer is a normal stepping stone, an opportunity, and a precious mission. You step into it to really do what you’ve been trained to do. This stint I write about was 15 months, and  it was preceded by six other deployments of varying lengths across the NZDF’s military commitments globally .

You were a lead psychologist and military officer with the NZ SAS for six years, assisting in selecting individuals, and helping them build resilience. What appealed?

Once you commit yourself to the intensive military environment, you seek the most meaningful challenge. Once I stepped into the role] and found myself useful, I felt an ongoing commitment. It was incredibly rewarding.

Were you always based in New Zealand?

For the selection component, yes. For the support during different military commitments, I went wherever we were globally.

What was the selection process?

You do it a multitude of ways. The first one is psychometric profiling [an assessment designed to measure cognitive ability, personality or work behaviour], then you observe the individual in context: testing how they work within the team. You’re making decisions about candidates who’ve sacrificed a great deal to even begin the [selection] process. How you select people – and support them moving forward – has to be rigorous, because your decision can have enormous repercussions for the individual, the wider team, New Zealand and globally.

Did you do physical training yourself?

Yes. If you’re in uniform you have to, irrespective of which role. It wouldn’t be all the components of physical training, and not to the same extent as others do, but it depends on where and why you’re deploying. My operational experience spanned Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, the wider Middle East and East Timor.

Why leave the military? Time for a new challenge?

Partly. And partly realising that if you stay in some of these roles for too long, you take away someone’s else’s opportunity to experience it and contribute differently. I was scared of losing the passion that saw me join: to be amongst challenges, solving, and learning. But I also dreaded the thought of becoming someone stuck in research. However the main reason for stepping away was the birth of my son in 2015, when my husband was still in the military, travelling a lot. He stepped away five years ago. Now he’s in education, working with young individuals.

Currently, as a registered psychologist and partner at Propel Performance Group – and also as Leadership Operating Partner at Movac Venture Capital – what’s a typical day?

I have no typical days, but I do have consistency in my commitments. I still have a slither of commitment to defence work and, currently, the rest of my time is working with not-for-profit organisations: high-performance coaching mainly with CEOs, developing their teams, and fundraising.I focus on supporting individuals and teams in a space we call the ‘spinning edge of possibilities’.

You have some international clients – are you doing this over Zoom sometimes?

Sometimes. We did work extensively on screens, particularly during the extended lockdowns. Now we’re thankfully back in a place where ‘being in the room’ feels most important. I’ve always found nothing can replace being face to face with people.

Be sure to check in next week for the second half of our conversation

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