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Become a mentally strong leader

Mental Strength

To be an effective leader, you need more than knowledge and people skills. Leaders who get top results are mentally strong — focused on goals important to the entire organization, aware their emotions and resilient in the face of setbacks or even failures. But what exactly is mental strength?

In 2004, a young graduate student went to West Point to study cadets in a grueling initiation program. The cadets endured seven weeks of 17-hour days filled with physical and mental challenges. Though many dropped out, others made it through.

The researcher, Angela Duckworth, now an author and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that it wasn’t the cadets’ SAT scores, nor their physical aptitude scores or leadership potential scores that made the difference. Instead, it was something she calls “grit” — a passion and perseverance for achieving long-term goals.

Having grit means being mentally strong and steadfast in pursuing your goals, even if you fail along the way or don’t see progress for a long time. While talent and luck are important to success, “grit may matter at least as much, if not more,” according to Duckworth.

Since then, other studies have demonstrated the importance of mental toughness to leadership. According to Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do,” mental strength involves becoming aware of how emotions affect your decisions and learning to assess situations realistically, without being overly optimistic or pessimistic. “It’s about being productive no matter what circumstances you find yourself in,” Morin explains.

Morin says business leaders can do a great deal to cultivate mental toughness in the workplace. The key is to overcome bad mental habits and inspire others to do the same.

End the pity party.

When things go wrong, don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself, and don’t encourage the trait in others. It’s highly contagious. Have you ever noticed how quickly a staff meeting can devolve into a pity party?

Complaints, even when they’re justified, are backward-looking. You don’t want to stifle them, but instead of allowing the discussion to dwell there, change the focus to finding solutions. If there aren’t any yet, explain calmly that the work still needs to be done and that you trust your staff to figure out how to do it.

Embrace your discomfort zone.

Mental strength means embracing change and learning to think on your feet, notes LaRae Quy, a former FBI counterintelligence agent and author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind and Mental Toughness for Women Leaders.”

Quy got a rude introduction to improvising as a rookie agent, when she unexpectedly made her first arrest. She and her trainer were supposed to stop a dangerous suspect in traffic so that a SWAT team could close in and arrest him. But the s SWAT team got delayed. At a stoplight, Quy’s partner said she was going to have to make the arrest herself — now.

“That was not what we had practiced,” Quy recalls.

Not wanting to startle the possibly armed suspect, she tore off her FBI jacket, pulled her sweater down over her gun, and lightly tapped on his car window. When she saw he didn’t have a gun within reach, she drew hers and yelled, “FBI; you’re under arrest!” He was so surprised, his foot slipped off the clutch and he rolled into the intersection. She continued pointing her gun at him until the SWAT team arrived.

Though it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to face down an armed criminal, you’ll certainly be given tasks you’re unprepared for. In fact, you should seek them out.

“We get so caught up in our plans and goals and rigid in our thinking,” Quy says. “You need to experiment with putting yourself in a situation where you don’t know the outcome.”

Push yourself, but not so far that it’s unrealistic. Experts suggest our “stretch” should be about 4 percent beyond the level we have achieved previously, Quy says. Then add another 4 percent the next time, and keep going until you reach your goal.

Moving through your discomfort zone is the only way to break through mediocrity and achieve a higher level of success. “You may fail,” Quy says. “Look at it as an opportunity to get better next time.” 

Be resilient.

Mental strength means not wishing your circumstances will improve, but dealing with them as they are now.

“Realize that you’ve lost your arm or your leg, your job, or your client, and that’s not going to change,” Quy says. Instead of living in regret, find a new way of achieving your goals. Quy often experienced frustrating dead ends in FBI investigations. “Good investigators go 360 degrees until they find a soft underbelly,” she says. “If you persist, you will find it.” 

Find a worthy goal.

According to both Quy and Duckworth, true perseverance can only be achieved if you have a goal that’s vitally important to you – one that extends beyond money and involves positively impacting the people around you. Otherwise, you won’t have the motivation you’ll need to overcome the discouragement, pain and failure you’ll encounter along the way.

One such goal could be to create a mentally strong work culture in which employees focus on the big picture and don’t let setbacks, impatience or petty jealousies distract them from success.

Quy faced the goal test when she nearly washed out of the FBI academy, unable to do 50 pushups. She could easily have chosen a different career.

“I had to decide if this was truly what I wanted to do to give value and meaning to my life,” she says. “I thought it through and said ‘Yes.’” Once she realized her goal’s importance, Quy had the grit she needed to keep trying until she passed. 

Make time for quiet moments.

Self-knowledge is a crucial part of mental strength, but it can be drowned out by television, videos and social media in today’s always-on environment, Morin says. “You need alone time to let your brain work through things,” she says.

Carve out at least 10 solitary minutes every day to reflect, meditate or write in a journal.

“Many people don’t want to face themselves,” Morin says. “They go through life creating distractions or say they’re too busy. But being alone will help you be productive later.”

Mental strength is not something we’re born with, nor is it an all-or-nothing ability. It’s a continuous process of honing life skills that will make you a better leader with a more productive, capable staff.


Mentally Strong: What Not To Do

Psychologist Amy Morin lists 10 bad habits you need to quit to become a mentally strong leader.

  1. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself.
  2. Don’t give away your power by thinking others are in control and there’s nothing you can do.
  3. Don’t shy away from change. If you want to achieve better results, you need to step outside your comfort zone.
  4. Don’t waste energy on things you can’t control by complaining, worrying or wishing others would behave differently.
  5. Don’t try to please everyone. Know your own values and live them.
  6. Don’t be afraid of taking a calculated risk. Let reason, not fear, guide you.
  7. Don’t dwell on the past. Forgive yourself and others, and don’t get stifled by anger and regret.
  8. Don’t repeat your mistakes. Notice how your emotions affect your behavior. If you don’t like the result, own up to it so you won’t do it again.
  9. Don’t resent other people’s success. Everyone’s different. Learn to celebrate others’ achievements without feeling they diminish your own.
  10. Don’t give up after your first failure. Instead, look at what you’ve learned. It may provide the key to success the next time — or the time after that.
  11. Don’t fear alone time. You need it to process your experiences and discover what’s truly important to you.
  12. Don’t feel like the world owes you something. The more energy you waste on resentment, the less you have for achieving your goal.
  13. Don’t expect immediate results. Real change takes time — there are no quick fixes to important problems.