Category Archives: Conviction

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

Post Election Lesson: Can You Really Change Someone’s Mind?

political-devisiveNow that the election is over, we can take a deep breathe and return to our nonpartisan lives. No more vitriolic Facebook posts or uncomfortable dinner party chatter. We have all united around the newly elected President, right? Please?

In one of the country’s more divisive political cycles, I made no secret of my views. The oversharing crazy train drove through and I jumped onboard with the rest of the wannabe pundits. I had my facts and stats and was ready for anyone who even casually mentioned the election.

As a result, these last two weeks have been spent mending relationships. I’m not apologizing for my convictions, mind you, but I didn’t have to come on so strong. Most seem to have forgiven me (and may even unmute my Facebook posts). For those who haven’t, I’d like to deflect accountability by citing a recent research study.

A new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines our motivation for speaking out about our beliefs. There seem to be two battling mentalities: 1) people who believe others’ attitudes are fixed, and 2) people who believe others’ attitudes are changeable.

Those in the “attitudes are fixed” camp have a heightened sense of certainty in their own position, making them more likely to stand up for their views. However, it also deters them from trying to convince other people, since a fixed attitude lends itself to a sense that others’ thoughts and opinions cannot be swayed. These two contrasting effects explain why your Uncle will argue with you about politics even when you aren’t arguing back—he isn’t trying to convince/educate you (as you are unpersuadable); he just want to defend his position and possibly get it off his chest.

Those in the “attitudes are changeable” camp believe opposing opinions can evolve. They see disputes as an exchange of ideas, not a competition. As a result, these individuals tend to be less combative and avoid conversations with obstinate opponents who display no willingness or intent to alter their views.

As leaders, we spend a significant amount of time trying to persuade and influence others. Consider whether you lean towards a fixed or changeable mindset before engaging in your next debate, and take stock of your opponent’s predilection. You may need to take it down a notch so they are more receptive to your efforts to “educate” them on the proper way to view the world. Frame your purpose for the conversation at the onset so they understand your intent and leave openings so they have a chance to respond. If this doesn’t work, I still have a few Twitter zingers saved up from the third debate that will surely convince them of your supremacy.

Weekender: Rob Burnett on Declarative Suggestions

Rob Burnett LettermanWelcome to another addition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a letter of thought to start your weekend off on the right track. Why just a letter, man? Because it’s the weekend!

For newer leaders, there is a moment where your new responsibilities become painfully apparent. Going into the job, you thought you understood the burden of being the “big man/woman” only to learn that reading the job description cannot prepare you for the overwhelming feeling of ownership and exasperation. When Rob Burnett took over as the executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman, he had just such a realization.

On the Fitzdog Radio podcast, Rob Burnett discussed a particularly bad episode that occurred early in his tenure. There was a moment in rehearsal when everything was going wrong. They couldn’t settle on an idea and Burnett was being overly tentative.

At 4:00, rehearsal is over and [David Letterman] gets up and he leaves. And now everyone is looking at me ‘cause no one knows what the show is, and we’re taping at 5:30. I go up to his office and I say, ‘So what are we suppose to be doing?’ And he looked at me very sternly and said, ‘This is suppose to work the other way around.’ And he turned and left. That was a real turning point for me because I realized he’s right, it’s my job… Dave is the kind of guy where you can’t say, ‘Should that guy be wearing shoes or sneakers.’ You have to say, ‘That guy is wearing red sneakers.’ And he’ll say, ‘No, he should be wearing shoes.’ It’s too slack the other way.

Treading lightly may have served as a beneficial crutch before you were in a leadership position, but once you are in the power seat, it is up to you to express certitude. So stop asking for permission and start acting like you have the authority to make decisions. As Burnett learned, even your top talent want a degree of guidance and direction. Provide options. Have a plan. Prepare for the worst-case scenarios. And speak with conviction.

Moral Outrage in an Election Cycle: Why You Need to Yell Louder

outrageDuring speaking engagements, I’m being asked more and more about the individuals running for President of the United States. This is not surprising since 1) I typically speak about leadership, and 2) we are in the midst of electing a new national leader. When these questions come up, I try to cover them with a nonpartisan response that discusses the candidates as more of a leadership case study versus delivering a political speech.

As much as I attempt to avoid focusing on a Presidential candidate’s ideological leanings, there are people who attempt to maximize their stage time during the Q&A segment with an impassioned lecture on the state of the country. They are then followed by an equally impassioned lecture on the opposite side of the issue. As their passion turns to outrage, I find my role shift from speaker to referee.

So much moral outrage. Its prevalent on the campaign trail, news programs, debates, and on the corner where people are holding signs in support of (or against) a candidate. This holier-than-thou indignation use to bother me; now I’m considering whether we should be harnessing it.

A recently published paper in the journal Nature has found that “people who invest time and effort in condemning those who behave badly are trusted more.” When denouncing wrongdoers, we appear to be vanguards of fairness and justice. Our vilification comes across as a selfless act thus, as the research shows, improves our reputation.

Our mathematical model shows that choosing to punish wrongdoers can work like a peacock’s tail — if I see you punish misbehavior, I can infer that you are likely to be trustworthy. – from the New York Times’What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?

marco-rubioshoesAccording to an article in Psychological Science, the term ‘moral outrage’ suggests a high degree of anger. However, to experience true moral outrage, you must also feel and express disgust. This disgust relates to situations that engage your moral sense and violate your beliefs. For instance, a few summers ago, President Obama had the nerve to wear a tan-colored suit to a press conference. Marco Rubio caused a similar outcry when the American public rallied against his shoe selection. I’m not exactly sure why these incidents sparked outrage, but I own neither a tan suit nor shoes with a high heel… not that I am taking sides.

obama tan suitWhether running for office or leading an organization, expressing moral outrage serves as a form of personal advertisement. You are advertising that you are not just anti “bad stuff,” but that you are taking a public stand against said “bad stuff” and are willing to take action to prevent it from happening again.

Ironically, the research also shows that the need to actually take action is not necessary. Your visible outrage is all that is necessary to bolster your trustworthy quotient; pursing punishment of those accused is perceived as a weaker signal of trustworthiness.

While I agree with the above research, I will not recommend that you forget about Mark Twain’s infamous, “Action speaks louder than words.” See how far you will get in your career if you are all talk with no action. At the same time, maybe expressing some of your moral outrage is not so bad. Just save it for issues that matter, be well-informed before speaking, and be prepared for some backlash by those who don’t agree…. unless you are speaking out against tan suits; some things cannot be condoned.