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Wellness principles for first responders: Applying extreme ownership

Jocko Willink discusses the wellness challenges specifically facing first responders and strategies to strengthen wellness at every stage of the journey

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Nutrition. Exercise. Sleep. Hobbies. Relationships. Identity. Wellness can and does encompass many things that affect your overall wellbeing. While these can be difficult to balance for anyone, first responders face unique challenges tied to the nature of their work – from shifts to repeated exposure to critical incidents. So, how can you lead and win when it comes to wellness? You may already be doing things to support your wellness or the wellness of your personnel, but you know you could be doing more. Maybe you don’t even know where to start. Give yourself grace as you start down the wellness path, for yourself or your agency. The important thing is to make wellness a priority and start taking proactive steps, however small.

In a recent webinar with Lexipol and Echelon Front, “First Responder Wellness – Lead and Win,” Jocko Willink, Dr. David Black and Mandy Nice discuss the wellness challenges specifically facing first responders and strategies to strengthen wellness at every stage of the journey.

The mind-body connection

Wellness is holistic. What happens to your body affects your mind and vice versa. “Strengthen your body to strengthen your mind,” Dr. Black explains simply. Prioritize your physical health by improving nutrition, focusing on exercise and physical fitness, and ensuring sound and consistent sleep. Prioritize your mental and emotional health by putting time and effort into your relationships, setting goals for personal and professional development, and addressing any unresolved trauma with the proper support and resources.

It is essential first responders understand the relationship between their mind and their body and adapt accordingly. Central to this connection is ensuring you have the right mindset and approach to your life and your wellness. Willink’s “mindsets for victory” provide an effective outline for growing and maintaining your wellness in good times and bad:

  • Be default aggressive. “You can’t just sit back and allow life to happen to you…you have to go and make things happen,” Willink says. In wellness, being “default aggressive” means taking incremental steps to improve your wellness, starting from where you’re at now.
  • Innovate and adapt. Your career as a first responder, your relationships and your life are dynamic. “Things change all the time on the battlefield, things change all the time in life,” Willink explains. You have to be ready to adapt to these changes, shifting your approach to wellness as you would to any other changes you face.
  • Think strategically. In the day-to-day, it can be easy to think tactically and lose sight of the long-term. “It’s very easy to get caught up in tactical thinking, in the immediate gratification,” says Willink. Keep your eyes on the end goal (having a long and healthy career and a long and healthy retirement), and center your daily actions on achieving that goal.
  • Be humble. Sometimes, it really is that simple. Willink offers his perspective: “Humility is the most important characteristic for a leader and a human being.”
  • Discipline equals freedom. “The more discipline you have, the more freedom you’ll have,” Willink explains. While this may appear counterintuitive, it’s crucial to understand that the way to achieve freedom of your life – including freedom from health problems – is through proactive discipline.

The wellness identity

Willink’s critical concept of “extreme ownership” plays an integral role as well. A large focus of wellness – especially for first responders – is identity. While it’s easy to find your identity in your job, making it the focal point of your life, it isn’t a strong foundation for a healthy identity.

Dr. Black discusses the importance of taking extreme ownership of your identity and tying it to wellness. “Ask yourself where your health and wellness fits into your identity,” he says. “Internalize it: ‘I am a person who prioritizes my health and wellness.’” The central idea is that actions flow from identity, which is subsequently reinforced by actions, in a continuous cycle. The way that your behavior and identity inform one another is central to understanding how making wellness part of who you are can ensure your behavior reflects your priorities. “When you take those daily actions, you’re reinforcing who you want to be,” says Dr. Black.

Incorporating wellness into your identity means taking ownership of the things in your life that you can control. “Our ego encourages us to blame other people,” Willink explains. “When we make excuses for everything, we are just a victim in our lives.”

There is another way: First, recognize that you have a lot more control than you think. Second, let go of the things you can’t control. Third, take ownership of what’s going on in your world – that includes your wellness.

“Start with something small and gradually build up momentum as you go,” says Nice. Remember that wellness doesn’t happen all at once and there is always more you can do – everything doesn’t have to happen today. Find habits that work for you, own them and build them up over time.

What does it mean to lead in wellness as a first responder? Determine what your priorities are when it comes to improving your wellness and incorporate them into your life, while supporting and encouraging your peers to do the same. Learn more about strategies for wellness success and watch the full on-demand webinar, “First Responder Wellness – Lead and Win,” with Jocko Willink, Dr. David Black and Mandy Nice.

Lexipol’s Content Development staff consists of current and former public safety professionals including lawyers and others who have served as chief, deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, officer, deputy, jail manager, PREA auditor, prosecutor, agency counsel, civil litigator, writer, subject matter expert instructor within public safety agencies, as well as college and university adjunct professor. Learn more about Lexipol’s public safety solutions.