Category Archives: Resilience

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.

Have a Fear of Losing? Self-Esteem Won’t Help, You Need Self-Compassion

What motivates you to pursue success? I’m not referring to money or fame; those are the products of success. What I’m asking is when you set your sights on a new challenge, what thought is going through your head?

On a recent episode of Pod Save America, they were discussing the inner dialogue of an unsuccessful presidential campaign—oversights, skewed approaches, why the candidate’s popularity seems to increase after losing. In regards to Hilary Clinton, one concept I found fascinating is the idea that her campaign and pre-election persona were too restrained and prudent. According to co-host Jon Favreau, this is not a new diagnosis after a failed run for the top office.

They said it about John Kerry after his concession speech. They said it about Mitt Romney after his concession speech. They said it about Al Gore after his concession speech. They said it about John McCain after his concession speech. There is a certain brand of politicians who are too cautious during a campaign and are less cautious after the campaign is over, and that is because they run with an overwhelming fear of losing. And that fear of losing makes them more cautious and calculated.

How many leaders are hampered by their fear of losing? Instead of operating from a position of confidence or positivity, they are focused on not screwing up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more you fixate on the negative outcome, the more likely they are to come to fruition. So how can we stop ‘not losing’ and concentrate on ‘winning’?

We are frequently taught that success stems from self-esteem. Unfortunately, self-esteem is situational. It is linked to social comparisons, unrealistic expectations, and arbitrary self-assessments. In truth, research shows that self-esteem does not cause success; it is the result of success. Therefore, to start thinking like a winner, we need to replace our aspirations for self-esteem with aspirations of self-compassion.
Unlike self-esteem which is concerned with how you evaluate yourself, self-compassion is about how you treat yourself. This has three aspects. First, self-compassion means caring for one’s self with the same benevolence, care, and consideration that you treat those you care about. Being driven, results-focused individuals, we tend to set idealistically high goals and bet ourselves up when we fall short. Hence, we need to practice more self-kindness.

Second, it entails recognition that all people are imperfect. Often when we fail, our initial response is that something has gone wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening. We have this flawed view that everyone else is living a struggle-free life. With self-compassion we can alter how we relate to failure and difficulty by turning “poor me,” into “I’m not the only one.”

Finally, self-compassion involves mindfulness, a willingness to acknowledge our suffering. This may seem counter to a “winning” mindset, but denying the pain does not mean you aren’t feeling it. Maintain an accurate reading of your emotions so you can deal with them and move on.

Kristin Neff, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, fi
rst proposed the concept of self-compassion in 2003. Since then, her research has shown that self-compassion is significantly associated with every indicator of psychological well-being.

Self-compassion yields greater emotional stability, resilience, life satisfaction, and a more optimistic perspective. The self-compassionate respond more adaptively to negative events with less pessimism, cynicism and self-critical thoughts and experience fewer negative emotions. And they experience lower amounts of stress, anxiety, and guilt.

Remember that fear of losing? Well self-compassion has also been found to enhance motivation. When people with greater self-compassion fail, they are less afraid of failure. In one study, after participants failed a test, they were coached to be more self-compassionate. Later, when they had the opportunity re-take the test, they studied longer than people who were not told to be self-compassionate.

Self-compassion filters how we respond to setbacks, thereby freeing us up to take risks and remain true to our convictions. Without the burden of hypercritical thoughts we can stop focusing on reducing distress and instead manage the actual issue.

And good news! We can learn to be more self-compassionate. Studies have found that even brief exercises instructing people to think about a problem in a self-compassionate manner have positive effects.

Step 1: Identify instances in which you are not being nice to yourself. Does your internal monologue tend to be negative? Are you punishing yourself when things don’t go your way?

Step 2: Determine why you are so self-callous. Do you think being hard on yourself is motivating? And if so, how badly do you need to feel in order be motivated? While negative thoughts can help us to manage behaviors, those with low self-compassion make themselves feel much worse than needed. Recognize when your sentiments cross from constructive into destructive.

Step 3: Stop it. When bad things happen, remind yourself that everyone fails, is rejected, humiliated, or experiences a multitude of other less-than-desirable happenings. Practice some self-kindness by being nice to yourself. Don’t lower the bar, but don’t beat yourself up when trying to reach it either.

Have a fear of losing? Stop trying to build self-esteem and start developing your self-compassion. Unlike the self-admiration of self-esteem, self-compassion does not depend on viewing yourself positively or even liking yourself. It is not contingent on failing or succeeding. And it won’t diminish when you experience a low point. So be compassionate to yourself so you can concentrate on winning, not avoiding catastrophe.

Hillary Clinton: Three Leadership Lessons from the Democratic Presidential Candidate

hilary clintonAuthor’s Note: This article is not intended to be an endorsement of a candidate. The leadership tactics we will discuss are proven to be effective in persuading others and bolstering influence. How you choose to use these techniques is up to you.

Since today kicks off the beginning of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it is a good time to discuss the leadership techniques utilized by the projected Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. When describing her methods, hard work, thorough understanding of the issues, and the desire to achieve a particular goal were my initial descriptors. Unfortunately, the only tips I could pull from this list were work harder, read more, and practice goal planning. These are all recommended, but after more thought, here are (another) three techniques we can learn from Clinton:

Fight Through Adversity

Whether it’s a result of her views, actions, or a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Hillary Clinton has endured through almost thirty years of harsh, negative inquiry. If this sounds overstated, a Harvard University study showed that Clinton’s media coverage was more negative than that of any other candidate in 2015.

clinton media bias

Media Tenor, January 1-December 31, 2015. Tone figures based on positive and negative statements only. Neutral statements are excluded.

In 11 of the 12 months studied, Clinton’s “bad news” outpaced her “good news” by a wide margin—in the first half of 2015, negative statements outpaced the positive by three to one; the second half was three to two, negative over positive. This negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings. And this was not based on conservative-leaning media bias. The study analyzed thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

I don’t write this to defend Clinton or to disparage the media. My point is that it takes a tremendous amount of resilience to persevere through adversity… and she’s done it with an impressive track record of professional successes that will be topped off this week with the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

Most of us will never be subjected to the virile attacks Clinton has experienced; this does not mean we can cower when confronted with hardship. A leader without resilience is a leader who is short-lived in their role. If you desire to do anything of substance, you will face setbacks. Resilience is how you recover. Here are a few ways you can enhance your ability to persevere:

  • Operate with a sense of purpose; sustain your key values and principles
  • Disregard sensationalism and hype; maintain perspective with logic and facts
  • Give yourself time to bounce back from the obstacle without wallowing in pity
  • Learn from your mistakes and move on
  • Remain focused on achieving the goal(s)

Don’t Minimize the Power of Predictability

Since reaching national notoriety in the 1990s, Clinton has presented herself in a consistent manner—a driven professional with high standards and even higher expectations. This ability to remain consistent may not sound exciting, but it is a foundational leadership attribute that followers actively seek.

Research in the Journal of Business Ethics found that self-consistency is a predecessor to authentic leadership and followers’ satisfaction with supervisor, organizational commitment, extra-effort, and team effectiveness. Another study in the journal Human Relations found that consistency results in a significant positive interaction with mission, adaptability, and involvement in predicting market-to-book ratios, sales growth, and overall performance. Google echoed these findings after conducting a widespread study of their hiring practices to determine what makes a successful leader.

When [Google] crunched the numbers, what they found out was remarkable for its overlooked common sense. Leaders must be predictable and consistent, because then employees grasp that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want. In other words, when managers are predictable, they remove a roadblock from employees’ path—themselves. On the flip side, if your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.— Walter Chen, CEO of iDoneThis

If your team can predict what you are going to do, they won’t waste energy trying to forecast your mood, prophesize your priorities, or change course with every erratic decision. They are freed up to do their job.

Express Your “Humanness”

When people describe Clinton, they tend to discuss her in professional terms—industrious, multitask-oriented, organized, goal-driven. While these seem like the qualities you would desire in a President (or any other leader), there is something that has not connected with many in the public arena.

David Brooks, a political commentator who leans sharply on the conservative side of the bipartisan spectrum, recently wrote,

Agree with her or not, she’s dedicated herself to public service. From advocate for children to senator, she has pursued her vocation tirelessly. It’s not the “what” that explains her unpopularity, it’s the “how” — the manner in which she has done it.

This “how” is the need to exhibit a multifaceted, well-rounded version of one’s self. Poll after poll shows that people do not feel like they know Clinton’s non-political side. They know she’s a mother and grandmother, but they see her more as a career-minded workaholic.

For whatever reason, people want to know what their leaders do for fun. A 2004 poll found that voters favored George W. Bush over John Kerry because they “would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry.” Bill Clinton surged in the polls when he played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. And Barak Obama always garners positive press when he releases his annual NCAA Basketball Championship bracket.

According to research by psychologists Maurice Schweitzer and Adam Galinsky, leaders need to strike a balance between warmth and competence. They illustrate this theory with an accomplished psychiatrist who would employ one of three tactics when he first met a new patient: drop a pencil, tell a bad joke, or spill his coffee. His intent was to show his fallibility, i.e. warmth. Combined with his display of competence, including his office of diplomas, published books, and awards, the doctor was perceived as being more trustworthy and more proficient.

Likability counts, so if you want to be a more effective leader, show your team who are when you’re off the clock. Don’t downplay how hard you work, but throw in a few personal details. Talk about your weekend. Discuss your kids. Tell self-deprecating stories. Basically, display your vulnerability so you can be more relatable.

Hillary Clinton has run a solid campaign to reach this next stage in her career. Many factors have led to this moment, but her resilience and consistency have been key ingredients in her candidacy. As I wrote in my preceding article on Donald Trump’s leadership lessons, if you support her, these techniques are working. If you don’t, sharpen your skills to help defeat her. Either way, let’s hope this election cycle can become more competence and issue-based, and move away from the less substantive bouts that have become all too commonplace. It may not be as exciting, but is excitement really your measure of a world leader?

Jessica Jones on Overcoming a Toxic Boss

jessica jones posterI recently binged watched the Netflix series Jessica Jones. Let me begin by saying “Wow!” I can’t remember the last time I was so addicted to a show. If you haven’t seen it, the simple premise is that Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a former minor superhero suffering from PTSD.

We follow Jessica as she deals with the source of her PTSD, a sadistic adversary named Kilgrave (David Tenant). Kilgrave has the power to control minds. If he tells someone to do something, they will do it without hesitation regardless of how vile the suggestion may be—sticking their hand in a blender, tossing hot coffee in their face, punching a stranger, etc. With his power, Kilgrave held Jessica captive for a year against her will. Pretty sick stuff.

jessica jonesTo a much lesser extent, how many of us have been “mind controlled” by a less-than-favorable boss? Like Kilgrave, they tell us how to feel, what to think, and how to behave. However, since they don’t have Kilgrave’s superpower, these “leaders” control through such tactics as manipulation, fear, and isolation (emotional and physical) until you are ultimately browbeaten into submission.

To deal with her trauma, Jessica resorts to drinking heavily, working obsessively, and bouts of insomnia. I’d like to suggest a few more constructive ways to help you work through your situation.

Concede

If you can swallow your pride, present ideas in a way that allows the boss to feel the idea was theirs and/or take partial credit.This will allow the boss to feel important and your ideas will be able to flourish. Be sure to give the boss credit and compliment frequently. It may not feel dignified but self-preservation is not always pretty.

Be selective

Choose your battles wisely. Think before you act. Make rational, purposeful choices as to which battles are worth fighting and which you need to let go.

Form a coalition

If it’s you versus someone in a higher position of power, you are going to need support. Finding others who are willing to go out on a limb may be tough, but power in numbers is effective. Get the team together to provide constructive, non-threatening feedback to the boss. Maintain frequent contact with these other courageous individuals and ensure that you are not being played against one another.

C.Y.A.

When you are dealing with an unethical, vindictive boss, CYA (Cover Your A–) is a necessity. Maintain written records of every meeting, conversation, and incident. Avoid commentary, just write the facts. You may also want to send frequent emails to your boss summarizing assignments and seeking clarification on tasks. Not only will this clear up miscommunication, but it will provide a paper trail if needed.

Move up the chain

In the same way you need a supportive team, you also need support from those at the upper echelon of the organizational hierarchy. Make sure other department leaders are aware of your situation, speak with your boss’ boss, and keep HR in the loop.

Make a run for it

No one should have to work in a place that is so toxic, so once you’ve done everything you can to try to improve your current situation, it’s time to consider an exit strategy. Save yourself and find a healthier work environment.

It took Jessica Jones a year to break free form Kilgrave’s mental grip…and she had superpowers. Don’t wait around with the hopes that your situation will get better. Unless you do something, it won’t. Avoid succumbing to the mental warfare. Remind yourself of your value and don’t let others treat you as less.

Weekender: Lizzy Caplan on the Benefits of Rejection

Lizzy CaplanHow often are you rejected? It may feel like a lot, but is it really? Is there a possibility that you aren’t use to being denied so, as a result, these instances have a substantial impact and are difficult to shake off?

On the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones, esteemed actress Lizzy Caplan, best known for her Showtime series Masters of Sex and my personal favorite Party Down, was discussing her experiences with rejection and how’s its helped her cope.

It’s much easier to look back on [rejection] fondly when its in the rear view mirror, not that I’m past the point of rejection, by any means… Seeing all the other people, your peers, get opportunities. It is frustrating, its really dark. And then I think about, if you aren’t in [show] business…how many jobs do you actually interview for in your lifetime? How many no’s do you hear? 

I think it makes a person stronger. I remember talking to friends of mine who don’t do this for a living and [she] was devastated about not getting a job… I realized in that moment that she’s developed no think skin around this at all; this is truly devastating for her. Meanwhile, I get rejected a thousand times a year, like multiple times a day sometimes.

Because rejection hurts, we avoid it. It’s much less stressful to play it safe. This forms a buffer that keeps us far away from falling off the potential cliff of failure. I’d like to propose a different idea – seek out rejection.

Push yourself to the point where you’ve gone as far as you can. Only then will you live out your potential and determine your limits. There will be setbacks along the way, but those experiences will make you tougher, smarter, and more prepared for the next opportunity. The other option is to settle for what’s easy, and we both know that contentment through laziness is no way to succeed.

So go find a no. Take your ego for a test drive. It’ll get banged up a bit but the wins will make it all worth it.