Tag Archives: Off Camera

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.

Weekender: U2’s Edge on Directing Inspiration

edge-u2Welcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, an edge of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just the edge? Because it’s the weekend!

In the midst of a never-ending brainstorming session with looming high-priority deadlines, how do you re-invigorate your team? You could try yelling at them to squeeze out some creativity, recognition to sweet-talk a few new thoughts, or bribery to “grease the mental wheels.” Unfortunately, anyone on the brink of burnout needs more than motivation; they need inspiration…and it’s your job to provide it.

To supply the necessary inspiration your team needs to reach their creative potential, you must be prepared. In a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones, U2’s Edge discussed a trick used by famed record producer, Brian Eno.

Eno is a master of directing inspiration. I’m sure you’re aware of his oblique strategies. We call them tarot cards but they’re basically ways to take a session from being in a safe, orderly, predictable place and knock it instantly into a sort of beautiful chaos. So there are cards that suggest a change of strategy within the studio. He’d shuffle the deck, take one out, and it might say, ‘Everybody swap instruments’ or ‘play whatever song you’re playing at half time.’… What this spoke to is that inspiration is about being out of your comfort zone or trying different things, risking failure and getting out of that very conscious place that we are all in most of the time, because the subconscious part of the brain is way more creative.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to present diversions that will help our team generate the most creative solutions possible. Keep a folder of on-the-go activities that are readily available for you to refresh your team. And remain vigilantly aware of the work environment so you know when these distractions are needed.

Work association games, charades, or any number of team building exercises give the conscious mind a break while stretching the subconscious. This is supported by Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, who found that distractions foster creativity by loading a higher number of stimuli in your awareness, thereby allowing your subliminal the opportunity to generate more new ideas.

Not convinced that these games are no more than fluff? You should ask U2, one of the most successful bands in history, who continue to use these games to find new levels of innovation. Then, you may realize that a 15 minute “fun” diversion will save you and your teams hours in frustrating mental gridlock.

Weekender: Keegan-Michael Key on Perceiving Challenges

Keegan-Michael KeyWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a peel of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just the peel? Because it’s the weekend!

Have you ever seen a leader throw a temper tantrum over the minorest of minor issues? When this happens, it is clear that the individual has experienced a temporary lapse of what really matters. While this is bound to happen to anyone, the leader cannot afford to damage their reputation or appear petty. Keegan-Michael Key offers a perspective that may help.

Comedian and actor Keegan-Michael Key is best known for his television work on Key & Peele and MADtv and his recent movie Keanu. In a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones, Key discussed how maturity and experience have changed the ways he views life’s daily challenges.

At the end of the day, in our industry, it’s always just a series of challenges. So the difference is, do you look at the challenges as opportunities or do you look at the challenges as problems. And that is something that as I’ve gotten older, I’ll get into a weird mode where I’ll say, ‘alright, the stakes are really high this time.’ No, no, no, no. Why? Why weren’t they higher here? The issue or the challenge is just a challenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a $50 million comedy or you’re doing a play at a 60 seat black box. How do we decipher and give clarity to every moment?

What an interesting view on maintaining perspective. If we can view setbacks as nothing more than challenges, it takes some pressure off knowing that the stakes remain manageable. Then, in the moments when we feel like we’ve stumbled, our frustration might not feel so frustrating or maybe it won’t last as long.

Glitches are bound to happen, but your mindset can affect the impact they have on your confidence, attitude, and behavior. With a dose of perspective, your newfound Zen-ness can provide some inner peace and set the tone for your entire team.

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.

Raising Kids vs Raising Employees: Sarah Silverman on the Rhetoric/Reality Gap

When’s the last time you considered how your behavior is perceived? Do the discrepancies between your actions and intents send mixed messages? Comedian and actress Sarah Silverman recently discussed this on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones.

Some of the smarter jokes I feel like I write are from watching Real Housewives… Your obsession with your looks and trying to look younger makes your daughter not dream about her future. It’s the reason why your daughter doesn’t look forward to adulthood at all. Because it’s just this terror-filled attempt to look younger with shots and cuts and you become this weird Frankenstein monster. It’s really heartbreaking.

sarah silvermanThe Real Housewives mothers may not be purposely sending the message that getting older is a bad thing, but their conduct is enough to bolster these negative ideals in their children. This Rhetoric/Reality Gap between parents’ stated priorities and the real messages being sent was examined in a study by Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist with Harvard University’s school of education.

According to Weissbourd’s research involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% reported their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than 
caring for others. In addition, they were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

It turns out that no parents in the study stated the unimportance of caring for others; the prioritization of achievement and happiness were enforced by the power and frequency of parents’ messages and actions.

While originally intended for parents, the following guidelines from Weissbourd and his Making Caring Common project are easily adaptable to leadership, workplace culture, and how we interact with those on our team. These four strategies help shift the balance towards a team-based culture where respect and integrity are the priority.

Provide ongoing opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness. Individuals do not necessary begin their career with an innate ability to act with kindness and respect. Like most things, they learn it through repetition. With leadership guidance and daily opportunities to practice, we can lead staff 
to develop the skills to build a more cooperative, team-centric workplace.

Teach others to zoom in and zoom out. When we zoom in, there’s a focus on listening closely to individuals within our immediate circle. By zooming out we consider multiple perspectives, including those who are too often ignored and/or overlooked. Put the human experience of co-workers into context and expands their circle of concern.

Be a strong moral role model. The fishbowl analogy is not an overstatement – you are being watched by those in the organization. They want to see how you live the values, how you react when others do not exhibit the values, and how you incorporate the values into the organization’s strategies. Therefore, its imperative that we act in a manner that accurately reflects how you want others to act. Acknowledge your mistakes. Listen to those on your team. And continually look for opportunities to practice and demonstrate team-based behaviors, zoom in and out, and widen your circle of concern.

Guide others to managing destructive feelings. Anger, envy, and other negative feelings can supersede the intentions to be team-focused. We must make it clear to those on our team that it is okay to feel this way, but we must also maintain the emotional intelligence and self-control to remain professional. It is our responsibility to teach constructive coping mechanisms that address their concerns, resolve issues, and provide productive catharsis.

The role of the leader often feels like the role of a parent. This is not to say that employees should be treated like children, but the principles of raising respectful, responsible kids are similar to how we generate a positive workplace culture. Be receptive to how you may be unintentionally influencing those around you. Do you want to be a Real Housewife or a real leader?