Of all the competencies sought after by today’s budding business leaders — critical thinking, emotional intelligence, the ability to influence and inspire a team, to name a few — perhaps the most valuable is one that isn’t learned in a boardroom but on a baseball or soccer field as children.
Mental toughness is a term commonly used in sports — a term many begin to hear from coaches in youth athletics. Tuning out the noise or pressure and performing to potential in an otherwise difficult situation is what makes fans admire the most astute professional athlete.
It’s not that the quarterback was able to throw the winning touchdown, but the fact that he or she was able to do so under the tight and uncomfortable circumstances of the situation.
While sports stars grab the majority of headlines in the mental toughness arena, this trait has become essential for leaders to be successful in business as well, according to Christine M. Riordan, dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.
Global business leaders, facing the complexity of an uncertain working environment, need to have the same psychological readiness as an athlete. It’s not just a matter of leaders’ knowledge, ability or skill that sets them up for success, but also an ability to deal with the pressure and stress of competition, fatigue and failure, Riordan wrote in a 2010 Forbes article, “Six Elements of Mental Toughness.”
Riordan’s six elements of mental toughness are:
• Flexibility. “Just like a quarterback faced with a broken play, a leader must [be able] to decide quickly on a different way to get the ball down the field.”
• Responsiveness. “Game-ready leaders are able to remain engaged, alive and connected with a situation when under pressure. They are constantly identifying the opportunities, challenges and threats in the environment.”
• Strength. Mentally tough leaders “find the strength to dig deep and garner the resolve to keep going, even when in a seemingly losing game.”
• Courage and ethics. Leaders have to have the ability “to make hard but right decisions for the organization.”
• Resiliency. Leaders need to be able to rebound from disappointments.
• Sportsmanship. Have a “Bring it on!” mentality.
“Part of leadership and mental toughness is having the resiliency to bounce back from mistakes and situations that you [as a leader] really haven’t seen before,” Riordan said.
Developing mental toughness, however, is no small task. More than anything, teaching mental toughness in others demands commitment and dedication — both from the teacher and the student, said Bill Cole, CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a Silicon Valley business coaching consultancy.
Leaders seeking to acquire mental toughness can start by finding a mentor or coach who is willing to help guide them, according to Cole. While classroom and group settings are sufficient to lay the groundwork for developing the skill, one-on-one mentoring is best to provide for individuals’ situations and learning needs.
Classroom teaching is “just kind of the starting point,” he said. “You can get a discussion going [in a classroom], but then the deep learning has to happen after that initial talk is given.”
Once a coach or mentor is in place, leaders should then find a role model — someone who exhibits admirable mental toughness who they can reach out to.
Having a role model who embodies mental toughness, someone who can be personally connected to the learner, can give leaders a more engaging, visceral learning experience, Cole said.
Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, said he sets up players with a “mental workout,” or a series of mental exercises that are performed daily.
Included in this workout are things like controlled breathing and visualizing a personal “highlight reel” — “Imagine three successes that [are] going to happen in the next game,” Selk said.
While mental workouts for players and business leaders might differ in scope, the principles and concepts are largely the same, Selk said. He lays out his framework to develop mental toughness in five steps that play off phrases typically used by baseball coaches.
“Pay attention to your swing, and forget the home run.” Focusing too much on the target — or end goal — might diminish leaders’ chances for success. Instead, Selk said, focus on the process of what needs to get done to get there. “You cannot accomplish a goal without first having a sound process in place,” he said. “Identify those daily goals that have the greatest influence on your performance and, therefore, your success.”
“Don’t take your eye off the ball.” Control the tendency to be distracted and stay on the task at hand. “Many high-performing businesspeople believe they can multitask and still maintain focus,” Selk said. Too much multitasking, however, can hamper leaders in the end.
“Be your own ref.” Business leaders need to establish limits to be productive. Walling off time for family and work is essentially for leaders to maintain and develop mental toughness, Selk said.
“Get R&R between workouts.” Getting proper rest and relaxation is important for mentally tough leaders. Fatigue will only lead to lost productivity and engagement, and serve as a distraction, Selk said.
“Listen to your body.” “In sports, when athletes try to push through the pain, they end up on the [disabled list] with injuries,” Selk said. Business leaders who participate in “extreme working” — or working too many hours — run the risk of reduced productivity and possibly even diminished health.
“Most of these workers can’t sustain this level of performance; [they] end up burning out,” Selk said, “just like promising athletes who have to sit on the bench all season or retire early because of injuries.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.
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