Tag Archives: Charisma

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.

Trust is a One-Way Street: Why It Matters, How It’s Declining, and What Leaders Can Do About It

Leadership is built on one core concept—trust. Without it, you can forgo every other attribute espoused by management experts. Confidence without trust is an egomaniac. Charisma without trust is a charlatan. And vision without trust is a hypocrite. This was supported by a meta-analysis study from leading trust researcher and Georgetown University professor Daniel McAllister.

Published in the Academy of Management Journal, McAllister concluded that leaders viewed as trustworthy generate a culture where team members:

  • display greater innovation, agility, and responsiveness to changing conditions
  • take risks because they believe they will not be taken advantage of
  • do not expend needless time, effort, and resources on self preservation
  • go above and beyond to exhibit higher performing customer service, brand loyalty, and problem solving

This leads to a competitive advantage through significantly higher commitment, satisfaction, retention, and performance. Similarly, research from the Ken Blanchard Companies found a strong correlation between trust and the behaviors associated with highly productive employees—discretionary effort, willingness to endorse the organization, performance, and a desire to be a “good organizational citizen.”

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.—Stephen Covey

Before you get insulted that I’m explaining something as elementary as the benefits of trust, have you heard of the Edelman Trust Barometer? The ETB has surveyed tens of thousands of people across dozens of countries about their level of trust in business, media, government, and nongovernmental organizations. In its 17th year, this is the first time the study found a decline in trust across all four institutions in all 28 countries surveyed.

For leaders, one of the more disturbing findings of the ETB is the shocking lack of confidence in leadership—63% of participants said corporate CEOs are either not at all or somewhat credible. That means only 37% maintained the credibility of CEOs, a 12-point drop from last year, and this is consistent around the world. CEOs are more trusted than government leaders (29%), but that’s setting a pretty low bar. Plus, with this “trust void,” only 52% said they trust business to do what is right.

So if trust is important and society is not feeling it, what can we do? Good news: you can (re)build trust. Here are five techniques to consider:

  1. Recognition, Recognition, Recognition. To increases trust between leaders and employees, nothing does it faster than acknowledging their achievements. It indicates you are paying attention and reinforces positive behaviors.
  2. Show Compassion. Did I say recognition is the fasted way to build trust? It won’t mean anything if you don’t already have a foundation of respect. Just try influencing someone who doesn’t respect you; see how engaged they are in your ideas. Treat your team like real-life people—listen to their ideas, care about their feelings, and empathize with their concerns.
  3. Keep to Your Word. You can’t build trust without following through on promises. Your team needs to believe that what you say is sincere, so follow through on commitments.
  4. Don’t Hide Your Humanity. Being human means showing your imperfections. Your ability to discuss your mistakes and share what you have learned from it makes you more relatable. No one is concerned with transparency for the good stuff; they need you to fess up to faults, so show your vulnerable side.
  5. Smile. If you don’t want to do something substantive to build your trust and would prefer a gimmick, consider a recent study published in Psychological Science where convicted murders with trustworthy faces received more lenient sentences then their peers with untrustworthy faces. The key, it seems, is that a gentle smile increases how trustworthy others perceive you. Keep in mind, that it needs to be gentle—too big can be seen as duplicitous or insincere, while too small may be seen as sarcastic or leering.

I doubt that we can ever successfully impose values or attitudes or behaviors on our children certainly not by threat, guilt, or punishment. But I do believe they can be induced through relationships where parents and children are growing together. Such relationships are, I believe, build on trust, example, talk, and caring.—Fred Rogers

We live in untrustworthy times, but that does not mean we have to lead in an untrustworthy manner. Generate a culture where honesty, transparency, and truth are the basis of your organization. This must start at the top of the organizational hierarchy with you. The team will trust you once you establish that you trust the team. It may take time, but as Seth Godin says, “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

James Corden and the Three Ways to Be a Larger-Than-Life Leader

james-cordenWhen people think about the “ultimate leader,” there is a tendency to consider the larger-than-life individuals who invigorate a room with their charisma, omnipotence, and swagger. While these people exist, they are extremely uncommon. Many managers try to emulate these characteristics only to find that they are unable to sustain the energy required to constantly be “on.” That’s why I like the distinction made by James Corden.

In a recent interview with James Corden, the Tony award winning host of The Late Late Show, he discussed his theory that there are two categories of actors. As he describes it:

There are two types of actors—aliens and humans. And neither is better. Genuinely, there is no better. We just watch them in different ways. So your aliens are Daniel Day Lewis, Mark Rylance, Ray Fiennes where you look and say, ‘I don’t know how they are doing that, that’s amazing.’ You look at them on a pedestal and go, ‘this is astonishing to me. I don’t know how they are doing that.’ And then there are actors where whoever they are playing and whatever they’re doing, are representing us, the audience. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of someone who is astonishing and amazing and yet finds a humanity which is always representing you.

You can watch Mark Rylance or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet and then you can watch one of my favorite actors in the world, Simon Russell Beale, with the text and one you are watching saying, ‘I don’t know how this is happening’ and the other you’re going, ‘whoa, that’s me up there.’

Aliens and humans. That is how we classify ourselves. In the leadership realm, aliens include such luminary favorites as tech maven Elon Musk, sports legend Phil Jackson, media icon Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban. The rest of us are humans.

There is nothing wrong with being a human. As Corden said, these are the people who we can see in ourselves. There may not be much hero worship, but their draw is in their relatability. “Human” leaders inspire because they can connect on a personal level. They are less intimidating, more approachable, and more replicable.

There are plenty of humans who would like to become aliens. Unfortunately, the ways aliens practice leadership are aspirational, yet ultimately unattainable. There’s no harm in trying (depending on your level of authenticity), however a more realistic goal is to incorporate their habits in a seamless, natural manner that matches your style and the culture of your organization. Try a few of these tips:

Aliens are vision-oriented. An alien leader is renowned for their focus in a particular area. They have a clear, uncompromising vision and use it to set expectations for their team. With this understanding, employees are largely empowered to complete initiatives on their own. The leader remains involved to the degree needed and, so long as the vision remains intact, they can cede control knowing that the direction of the organization is in good hands.

Aliens innovate. Those who have risen to the alien-level of leadership did so by transcending the status quo. They are obsessed with finding new, inventive solutions and surround themselves with self-motivated people who are also willing to take bold risks.

To be more alien, you must increase your team’s threshold for taking chances. While your inner monologue may be conservative, to build a culture of creativity, others need to feel free to take calculated risks without fear of reprisal. To demonstrate how to fail, admit your failed attempts, including what you learned and how you will avoid making the mistakes next time. When someone else fails, use it as an opportunity to laud their risk taking. And, if you are feeling especially generous, incentivize failed attempts to motivate others to make their own ambitious attempts.

Aliens are involved. Whether they are interacting with employees, investors, or vendors, alien leaders are engaged and hands-on. They seek chances to network and are committed to learn as much as they can from others. Aliens also prioritize development opportunities where they can coach, mentor, and provide feedback. They handpick protégés and remain acutely aware of their responsibilities, challenges, and progress.

Attaining an alien’s level of involvement is a practice that all leaders (humans included) can easily grasp. Carve out time in each day to remain connected. Regular contact with employees positions you to be in-tune with the culture, the personalities, and the quality of work. You will also be more aware of the decisions being made and you’ll be able to enforce accountability in real time.

If you are torn between whether you’re an alien or human, just assume you fall in the later camp. After all, an alien is probably too removed to even consider this question. Once this reality sets in, it’s time to elevate the leadership of your mere humanness through alien-approved best practices. Set your vision, embrace innovation, and get involved. This may feel foreign at first, but by creating these preconditions for trust (a great term from HBR’s Sydney Finkelstein), you never know who will look to you as an alien.

The Problems with Emotional Intelligence: It’s a Jungle [Book] Out There

Jungle-Book-by-Rudyard-Kipling-2Since the mid-1990s, the idea of emotional intelligence has been forced upon us as the quintessential trait for more effective leadership, enriched relationships, and generally happier lives. I don’t disagree with any of these findings and I remain a staunch supporter of growing your emotional intelligence. However, like anything, there are those who can take a positive feature and warp it to satisfy their own selfish agenda.

In 1894, English author Rudyard Kipling wrote about the perils of emotional intelligence in his classic, The Jungle Book, which you probably know it better as the 1967 Walt Disney Productions’ animated movie and (as of this weekend) the live action movie. The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli, an abandoned “man cub” who is raised by wolves with the help of Baloo the jovial bear and Bagheera the protective black panther.

jungle book shere khanUnlike the movies, Kipling’s book provides additional details on Shere Khan, the villainous Bengal tiger fixated on killing Mowgli. He makes many attempts on Mowgli’s life beginning with the man cub’s early upbringing. In a maneuver that involves a high degree of emotional intelligence, Khan infiltrates Mowgli’s adopted wolf pack. He promises the younger wolves generous rewards in exchange for tricking the leader while on a hunt. This results in the leader being expelled with Khan left to dismantle the group.

Khan does not coerce the younger wolves to aid his nefarious plot—he has the ability to understand himself and others and then channel this emotional energy in the desired direction. Khan is able to prey upon the naivety and self-indulgence of the less experienced members of the tribe. If this sounds familiar, consider what recent research has discovered on emotional intelligence.

A study led by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges found that when a leader gave an emotional, inspiring speech, the audience was less likely to consider the message and remembered less of the content, yet conversely, they claimed to recall more of the speech. This persuasive impact is attributed to the ability to strategically express emotions in a way where, according to the researchers, followers “stop thinking critically and just emote.”

According to Martin Kilduff from University College London, those who can control their emotions are more adept at disguising their true feelings. They purposefully shape their sentiments to express feelings that portray a more favorable impression of themselves.

The strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviors evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors where power and influence are traded.—Martin Kilduff

Stéphane Côté, a University of Toronto psychologist, measured Machiavellian tendencies as it relates to emotional intelligence. He and his team found that employees with higher emotional intelligence were significantly more likely to engage in harmful behaviors that demeaned and embarrassed others for personal gain.

As these studies show, the more people sharpen their emotional skills, the better they become at manipulating others. This is not meant to undermine the value of being emotionally intelligent, but it does show that each of us must remain hypervigilant against the Shere Khans in our organizations who are able to stroke our ego through charisma or empathy. We cannot confuse compassion for affection, nor can we mistake competence for integrity.

Don’t let your workplace become a jungle. Build the culture on collaboration and team achievement so others don’t perceive value in being a lone contributor. Emphasize ethical decision making over “winning.” Then the bare necessities of life will come to you.