The 10-Minute Mental Toughness Workout for Leaders

By: John Muros and Michael A. Peterman

In our last post, we explored how some people thrive in difficult circumstances, while others flounder and presented data suggesting that it takes increasingly higher levels of innate mental toughness to ascend to the highest levels of organizational leadership. In this post, we provide you with a training regimen to help you build habits associated with mental toughness.

Two essential components of any habit are a trigger and a response. Here, you can think of the performance challenge you face as the trigger. Currently, in response to that trigger, you might experience self-defeating thoughts that undermine your effectiveness. Our goal is to pair the trigger with new thoughts that support your success. As you pair new thoughts with the trigger repeatedly, the desired response pattern becomes more automatic. Therefore, we encourage you to complete the “10-Minute Mental Toughness Workout” at least four to five times a week.

Think of a performance challenge you currently face. Once it’s clear in your mind, reflect on and write down your responses to the items listed below. The items align with and support the “Four C’s” of mental toughness. You can use the same responses from one day to the next or vary them as you see fit.

1) Make a list of successes you’ve had when facing similar or related challenges (two minutes). 

2) How can this challenge be an opportunity for you? How can you grow and learn from the experience? Why are you grateful for the chance to face this particular challenge (two minutes)?

3) With respect to this particular challenge, make a list of factors related to success that are within your control (two minutes).

4) Make a list of what motivates you to stay the course, even when you encounter obstacles along the way (two minutes).

5) Choose one recurring thought that undermines your mental toughness with respect to this particular challenge. Actively challenge and dispute the thought. Make a list of evidence that contradicts the thought (two minutes).

An Illustration

Let’s walk through an example to provide a clearer sense of how to complete the workout. Jennifer is a talented executive with a global consumer packaged goods company. She has recently been appointed to a general manager role with responsibility for all markets in Southeast Asia. For several years, the company’s business in Southeast Asia has underperformed, and Jennifer’s last two predecessors were unsuccessful in navigating a turnaround. Complicating matters even further, Jennifer’s new boss is notoriously difficult. Volatile by nature, he has unrealistic expectations, is easily offended, and is reluctant to forgive those who disappoint him. Jennifer’s performance challenge is clear: she needs to overcome some significant obstacles to turn around an underperforming region. Let’s take a look at how she might complete the “10-Minute Mental Toughness Workout.”

1) Make a list of successes you’ve had when facing similar or related challenges (two minutes). 

When facing a performance challenge, Jennifer tends not to spend much time thinking about her prior successes and accomplishments. To be fair, she has never completed a turnaround of the size and complexity she currently faces. However, she has successfully reversed performance in smaller markets and has a long history of introducing new products that have stimulated growth.

Jennifer’s list:

  • I led a successful business turnaround in Mexico amid significant headwinds.
  • I oversaw a team that increased sales in Brazil by 21% over an 18-month period.
  • I have extensive experience in evaluating complex markets and identifying opportunities for growth.
  • I have overseen the development of several new products that have each increased revenue by a minimum of $10 million annually.

2) How can this challenge be an opportunity for you? How can you grow and learn from the experience? Why are you grateful for the chance to face this particular challenge (two minutes)?

In some respects, Jennifer views the performance challenge she faces as a burden. In fact, she sometimes becomes preoccupied with thoughts of failing in her new role. She needs to shift her mindset to see the challenge as an opportunity.

Jennifer’s response:

  • I am motivated by the opportunity to have a positive impact on people and the business. The current role allows me to do so on a wider scale than I have previously.
  • I can grow as a leader and broaden my skillset by learning to manage multiple markets simultaneously. I also can gain more global experience.
  • In assessing market conditions and introducing new products, I can leverage skills I already possess.
  • If successful, I am likely to have the opportunity to advance even further in my career.

With respect to this particular challenge, make a list of factors related to success that are within your control (two minutes).

The business in Southeast Asia faces a number of headwinds, including lower consumer spending in the region and increased government regulation. Still, a number of factors critical to success are well within Jennifer’s control.

Jennifer’s list:

  • Our new head of marketing is exceptional and we have a significant opportunity to reshape consumer preferences.
  • We can provide cheaper options to consumers through new products and packaging.
  • Several of our supplier contracts are unfavorable and can be renegotiated.
  • As a leader, I can do quite a bit to shift the culture in our region and strengthen employee engagement. Doing so should improve performance and productivity.

4) Make a list of what motivates you to stay the course, even when you encounter obstacles along the way (two minutes).

As her impressive track record might indicate, Jennifer is persistent in the face of obstacles and setbacks. However, she tends to “white-knuckle” her way through difficulties instead of mindfully connecting her efforts to a sense of higher purpose.

Jennifer’s list:

  • By sticking it out, I can change the culture here and improve the lives of employees.
  • Turning around the business in Southeast Asia is important for strengthening the company’s competitive position.
  • I arguably can have a larger impact here than in any other role in the company.
  • If we are successful, I can likely move into a role of greater scale and have an even larger influence on the company and its people.

5) Choose one recurring thought that undermines your mental toughness with respect to this particular challenge. Actively challenge and dispute the thought. Make a list of evidence that contradicts the thought (two minutes).

Jennifer spends considerable time worrying about what her boss thinks of her. Because of his volatility, it’s almost impossible to stay in his good graces. Jennifer feels like she needs his sponsorship to continue advancing in the company.

Jennifer’s response:

Recurring thought: If my boss doesn’t like me, I’ll have trouble advancing in the company.

Evidence contradicting the thought:

  • Over time, my results will speak for themselves.
  • Others recognize that my boss is volatile and capricious. As a result, they’re less inclined to take his opinions about people at face value.
  • I have other sponsors throughout the company who will go to bat for me.
  • Even if my boss stands in the way of my success here, there are great opportunities for me with other organizations.

Conclusion

Hopefully, Jennifer’s responses give you a clearer sense of how to complete the “10-Minute Mental Toughness Workout.” Again, try to do so four to five times a week. Over time, you will 1) increase your level of self-confidence; 2) focus more on the things you can control versus the ones you can’t; 3) remain more committed to your goals in the face of obstacles and setbacks; and 4) be more inclined to see challenges as opportunities than threats.

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