Mental Toughness: Why Leaders Need It

By: John Muros and Michael A. Peterman

This is the first of a two-part series examining the topic of mental toughness. In this post, we explore how mental toughness appears to be a critical skillset needed by leaders to ascend to the highest levels of organizational leadership. In Part Two, we provide a training regimen to help you build habits associated with mental toughness.

Challenge is part of everyone’s life. So why is it that some people thrive in difficult circumstances, while others flounder? Faced with obstacles, what leads some to power through them and others to wilt under the pressure? Simply put, it is their mental toughness. Whether you call it grit, perseverance, tenacity, willpower, or resilience, people have observed for centuries that some individuals are just better at working through difficulties than others.

Professor Peter Clough helped clarify a means for describing and measuring mental toughness using his “Four C’s” model. His work defined mental toughness as being comprised of control, commitment, confidence, and challenge (see Table 1 below, from ACQ International which describes the facets of mental toughness that underlie the Four C’s). Stated briefly, to be mentally tough an individual must have a sense of control over themselves and their circumstances; they must have a commitment to seeing things through to their desired end; they must have confidence in their abilities and influence; and they must see challenge as an opportunity for growth.

Table 1—Mental Toughness 

Leaders are presented with near-daily challenges that require them to tap into the Four C’s to summon the mental toughness needed to persevere. Indeed, leaders are critical in the very situations that absolutely require grit and resilience to win the day. Whether there are new frontiers to explore, ambiguous alternative paths to choose from, significant setbacks to overcome, negative attitudes to reverse, or strained working relationships to improve, success will prove elusive under a weak-willed, easily overwhelmed leader.

To engage so frequently in the mental toughness required to lead would seem to have a winnowing effect on those without the internal wiring necessary to deal with such consistent challenges. So, are higher-level leaders mentally tougher than those at lower levels in an organization? We see potential evidence of this in a composite scale developed to measure the personality basis for mental toughness across each of Clough’s Four C’s. Figure 1 illustrates a statistically significant directional trend showing that those with greater levels of leadership responsibility (e.g., executives, directors) exhibit higher scores on a “mentally tough personality” composite compared to those at lower levels of leadership responsibility (e.g., managers, professionals, individual contributors, administrative/clerical workers). This data set of 1,912 individuals includes men and women (71% and 29%, respectively) as well as a variety of industries, geographies (primarily United States, Canada, and Europe), education levels (mostly Bachelor’s and above), and ages (primarily 35–59).

Figure 1—Mental Toughness Index Scores by Leadership Level

Thus, whether individuals opt out of progressively more challenging leadership roles or they are selected out by their organizations, the data suggests that it takes increasingly higher levels of innate mental toughness to ascend to the highest levels of organizational leadership. Put differently, handling the near-daily issues that arise when you’re the leader appears to require a personality that is better poised for mental toughness.

Our personality, however, is unlikely to change much over time. Its stability naturally prompts the following question: To what extent, if any, can mental toughness be developed? In other words, even if we start out with less “raw material” than others, can we significantly enhance our mental fortitude through purposeful and dedicated effort? Based on a significant body of research and our own experience with coaching executives, we believe that mental toughness can in fact be developed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it can be done so only through considerable focus and effort. 

Mental toughness can be thought of in behavioral terms. It follows then that to strengthen our mental toughness, we need to establish new behaviors or mental habits that allow us to perform at our best in high-stakes situations. For example, instead of viewing a performance challenge as a threat that might expose our shortcomings, we need to develop the habit of seeing it as an opportunity for learning and growth. There is a prevailing myth that a new habit can by acquired within 21 days. Unfortunately, research suggests the 21-day rule is overly optimistic. In a recent study, participants needed an average of 66 days to build a new habit. In fact, depending on the difficulty of the task undertaken (e.g., having a glass of water once a day versus running 15 minutes before dinner), participants took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. 

Based on our experience, the habits associated with mental toughness are relatively difficult to build, particularly in the absence of a structured training regimen. But fear not. In our next post, we provide just such a regimen, one that we have not-so-creatively dubbed “The 10-Minute Mental Toughness Workout for Leaders.” If you’re a longtime Saturday Night Live fan, the phrase “mental toughness workout” might bring to mind the image of Stuart Smalley staring into a mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” The approach we recommend almost certainly won’t be as entertaining as Al Franken’s classic SNL skit. However, we do hope it’s a little bit more substantial.