Can Active Coping Be Learned?

Active coping is something that is learned over a lifetime. It is something that someone can get better at, but the improvement process is slow, incremental, and mostly internal. It means learning much more about the ways you’ve learned to protect yourself from what you fear—by retreating, by lashing out, by neurotically doing X—and then choosing to abandon those techniques because there’s a better approach available.

Active coping is helpful wherever it’s not likely that everything will go as planned—that is to say, everywhere and anywhere. Active copers experience each twist and turn in life – even unavoidable losses such as the death of close relatives or their own impending death – as an opportunity as well as a loss. With each new moment, active copers ask:  What can I learn from this event?  How can I use it to strengthen my commitment to the ideals I pursue?  What’s really happening now, and what is the healthiest response I can make?

Active coping is important for not only for leaders and companies evaluating people for leadership positions, but also for leaders who can benefit from understanding their coping style to improve their own performance.

Active coping lets a leader go farther and faster more surely. Consider an analogy with a car. We can get where we need to go driving an ordinary, inexpensive car, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But to drive on curvy, treacherous roads in dark and foul weather, we need a superbly engineered car, and that car will get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown in other situations. A strong framework of active coping enables a leader to survive the rough spots and also to perform better than others would in ordinary times.

If you’d like to improve your active coping, some of the most important things to keep in mind are:

(1) Know what you want; (2) recognize sources of threats or frustration; (3) possess the psychological freedom to act—take the action that is in your own best interest, not the action that feels easiest; (4) be ready to deal with resistance and overcome threats; and (5) pursue what you want in a way that is consistent with your values and ideals.


What are some examples of leaders in business (and elsewhere) who seem to have excellent active coping skills? What about the opposite?

It’s hard to tell from people’s public personas or even from their actions whether they are active copers, but I will hazard a guess about people whose public image seems consistent with active coping.

Nelson Mandela decided to get smart rather than get angry when imprisoned. He used the time to learn Afrikaans to be able to understand the oppressors. He kept his eye on his goal and was willing to switch tactics, embrace opponents, invent new forms of interaction, and generally do what it took to move forward—and he did it all with style, charm, and balance.

Lewis and Clark. In 1804, these men headed west from St. Louis with a group of 33 men to find a water route to the Pacific. They had no good maps and little information to go on. Over a period of two years and a few months, they journeyed successfully to the Pacific and back, through territory filled with potentially hostile American Indians. They prepared well, but just about everything was unexpected. They succeeded, and only one member of the expedition died.

Jim Lovell, who commanded Apollo 13. Although the safe return from space was clearly a group win, the crew was a key part of the response. As Lovell explained, “We were given the situation to really exercise our skills, and our talents to take a situation which was almost certainly catastrophic, and come home safely.”

In the world of business, Jim Collins put together his list of the 10 greatest CEOs. Although he wasn’t looking necessarily for active copers, one of his choices was Kathryn Graham, a terrific active coper. In 1971, as chief of the Washington Post, she considered the risks of publishing the Pentagon Papers, the leaked Defense Department study that revealed government deceptions about the war in Vietnam. If the Post published, it risked being prosecuted for theft of government secrets, which, in turn, could doom its pending public stock offering and other businesses. Graham wrote, “I would be risking the whole company on this decision.” Nonetheless, she approved publishing and the Post still had an extremely successful IPO.

For non-active copers, we can certainly start with plenty of executives who appear to have a narcissistic personality. I won’t name names but a quick Google search for “narcissists” and “CEOs” will show where others have made the link. Narcissism can be extremely successful but extreme narcissists are not active copers. Why?  They lack empathy. They are not seeing the reality of the world; they’re seeing the world filtered through a view of themselves as the grandiose center of the world, assuming that whatever action they take will be praiseworthy.

Dr. Leslie S. Pratch on Active Coping

Leslie S Pratch pic

Leslie S Pratch

A graduate of Northwestern University, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch received her PhD in clinical psychology, then went on to earn an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. She leverages her expertise to conduct personality assessments that help businesses find executives that will achieve positive results for their employer. Dr. Leslie S. Pratch shares her knowledge in her book entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014), in which she explains the skill of active coping.

Although the resumes of some candidates may seem ideal, factors besides past experience are important when predicting success among already high-achieving executives. Chief among these is active coping. Dr. Pratch describes this quality as follows: “Even if you have never heard the term before, you know it when you see it. When a person always seems prepared, and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping.”

In her book, Dr. Pratch goes on to explain how she uses this term: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world.” As part of the developmental assessment model in this book, active coping can help businesses predict which candidates are likely to thrive when tested, and successfully lead their organizations.

Looks Good on Paper pic

Active Coping as a Healthy Response to Stressful Situations

Looks Good on Paper pic

Looks Good on Paper

As the CEO and president of Pratch & Company, Leslie S. Pratch provides a host of business advisory services focused on identifying executive candidates and evaluating their leadership skills and business potential. A licensed clinical psychologist, Leslie S. Pratch is the author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

In Part I of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Ms. Pratch explores the theory and practice of active coping: “When a person always seems prepared and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping. When a person earns the trust of her friends and colleagues by refusing to take unfair advantage of others and refuses to let others take unfair advantage of her, that is active coping. When a person has the vision and self-confidence to rise above ‘business as usual’ when necessary, that is active coping.”

Ms. Pratch goes on to note: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. ‘Coping’ is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs and the external demands of our environment. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world.”

Further excerpts on active coping and how it relates to responses to stressful situations are available at

Dr. Leslie Pratch: The Skills and Personality Traits of Active Copers

Dr. Leslie Pratch received her PhD from the prestigious clinical psychology program at Northwestern University’s Medical School. In her book Good on Paper, Dr. Pratch examines active coping, which she identifies as a key attribute of a healthy personality structure. Active coping is the inclination and ability to effectively adapt to new and varying circumstances.

Dr. Pratch posits that an active coping style can produce a number of discernible traits and skills, which include:

1. Awareness: Active copers possess the ability to see and understand reality, including their own needs, aptitudes, and shortcomings.

2. Courage: Displaying a desire for new experiences, active copers are not threatened by the complications they might encounter.

3. Decisiveness: Active copers are able to successfully manage the challenge of choosing among competing goals.

4. Energy, fortitude, and the willingness to persevere: Active copers seek forward movement, even when conditions are tough.

5. Plan execution: Active copers are planners and consider the downsides of possible endeavors, but they also understand that action is as important as introspection.

6. Resiliency and the ability to learn from experience: After a setback, active copers can regroup, learn from their mistakes, and move on.

7. Resourcefulness: Active copers are inventive and enterprising problem solvers.