athletes, complexity, Features, Hult Labs, Mark Esposito, mental toughness, sports

Are You Mentally Tough—Enough?

Posted Aug 13, 2013 by Hult Labs

Would you say you’re a tough person? OK, maybe not the extreme cage fighting, put cigarettes out on your arm, swim icy waters in your birthday suit kind of tough—but mentally tough? Because it’s becoming clear that mental toughness is a pretty important skill to have while navigating an increasingly complex world. And don’t just take Hult Labs’ word for it. Professor Mark Esposito, in a recent #HultTweetUp on complexity, summed up very succinctly why the very nature of the business world has changed drastically in a short amount of time.

So in addition to having the core skills to meet the requirements of your job (or the one you hope to have), there’s another set of skills that you need to make sure you’ve got covered if you want to succeed. Some of those include managing uncertainty and ambiguity, being an effective communicator, and the ability to persuade and influence your peers, as well as those above you. But you could argue, and we’re just going to go ahead and do that, that all those skills can be wrapped up into one: the ability to be mentally tough in the face of challenges—like incomplete or disparate data, shifting deadlines, dysfunctional team dynamics, and still find solid, workable solutions.

It turns out that a lot of top leaders also agree. In 2010, IBM conducted a study among 1,500 CEOs from all over the world. “They felt the greatest issue facing them was the escalation of complexity,” writes Christine Riordan in her article “Six Elements of Mental Toughness.” And Riordan herself is also acutely aware of how important the issue has become—she’s the dean and a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. In her article, Riordan draws compelling parallels between CEOs and another group that must perform well in stressful environments: top athletes.

More specifically, Riordan believes that we can cull from sports psychology—yes, that’s right, sports psychology—lessons about the real world. Unsurprisingly, it provides examples of some pretty rich parallels with the business world. “Research and common sense tell us that top competitive athletes succeed because of their physical talents and their dedication to training. However, they also succeed because of their dexterity in dealing with the psychological pressures of a sport. In short, mental toughness and resilience are tremendously important,” writes Riordan. Sound applicable to the business world now?

Riordan highlights “six markers of mental toughness” that readily apply to the business world—so take note.

1. Flexibility : The world is subject to change, because change is inevitable. That’s why it’s important to maintain agility—and Riordan says, a sense or humor. Both will allow you to maintain persistency when things aren’t going your way and you need to identify a new course of action. “Game-ready leaders have the ability to absorb the unexpected and remain supple and non-defensive.”

2. Responsiveness: Today’s business problems are thorny, complicated, and not at all straightforward. And because things change so quickly, it’s important to keep an eye out for what’s occurring on many different levels: industry trends, both regionally and nationally—and the rest of the world. “We must pay close attention to economic trends, market trends, consumer trends, industry trends and competitor responses. Relying on old assumptions about how business operates and assuming that last year’s trends still hold today is dangerous, ” writes Riordan.

3. Strength: Stress, pressure, and tight deadlines are the new normal. But it’s important not to succumb to the paralysis that can overtake us when we feel overwhelmed, stymieing any progress we hope to make. Says Riordan: “Game-ready leaders are able to exert and resist great force when under pressure and to keep going against insurmountable odds. They find the strength to dig deep and garner the resolve to keep going.”

4. Courage and ethics: This is a critical one, because a really common piece of feedback we at Hult Labs have received from business leaders all over the world is that they want highly ethical people in their organizations. They want to trust that when the going gets tough, employees will choose to do the right thing. “Game-ready leaders do the right thing for the organization and the team. They suppress the temptation to cut corners or to undermine others so they come out on top. They have the courage to make the hard but right decisions for the organization,” writes Riordan.

5. Resiliency: You know what else is inevitable, apart from change? Failure. We have all failed at some point, and will fail again in the future. And while it’s important to absorb learnings that come out of that (maybe after we’ve taken a minute or two to mope), it’s really important to be able to bounce back from failure and forge ahead. Says Riordan: “Game-ready leaders rebound from disappointments, mistakes and missed opportunities and get right back in the game. They have a hardiness for enduring the downs of a situation. They remain optimistic in the face of adversity and quickly change when necessary.”

6. Sportsmanship: Everyone has a bad day, right? Whether you’re the one experiencing it, or can see that a colleague is, it’s important to remain steady and professional. Because the ripple effect of a verbal attack or an unkind action can ripple much farther than you think. “Clearly we all experience disappointment, attacks from others, an occasional blow to the stomach. However, the behavior exhibited by game-ready leaders after losing or being attacked by others or the situation sets the tone for the rest of an organization,” writes Riordan.

If all this sounds like a tall order, take solace because these skills can be strengthened with time and intent. If need be, keep the list in plain sight at your desk—or discreetly in a notebook if you’d rather not display it for the world. We would add one qualifier to this list: the point is to be mentally tough within yourself, not tough on the people around you. Maintaining a calm external demeanor is the hallmark of true mental toughness and will make you stand out that much more when those around you are showing signs of cracking under pressure. Now, anyone up for an arctic swim?

Photo courtesy of Tony Alter.

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