The Cowardly Lion Wasn’t Comfortable Either

Every day we encounter fear – fear of life, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of people, fear of the dark and so on. We’ve spent a great deal of time with clients lately addressing their fears, both personal, professional and organization-wide. Change is the one constant in everyday life at home and in the office, in school and on the golf course. You can be brave, bold, persevere, have compassion, clarity and consistency, but without courage you will fail.

Courage is the one dimension required to persevere and stick with the changes in order to get the desired result you seek. A mentally tough leader must have courage if they are to lead, to lead elegantly and to lead successfully. Learning how to be a mentally tough leader comes at the crossroads of opportunity and discomfort – that grey area where fear lurks – asking at every turn, do you have the courage to go through it?

Here are seven elements to be a Mentally Tough Leader:

1. Dealing with Adversity

Adversity happens in everything we do, and you must do your best to deal with it.  We’ve talked about being proactive, preventive and predictive. How are you not prepared for adversity? It’s never “if it’s going to happen. It’s always when?  What will it take for you to never be negatively surprised again? You should never be surprised by adversity – easily said, yes.  How are you dealing with it?  Being part of a team helps – a team at work, a sports team, a family team.  A solid team will realize they and the individuals on the team cannot be perfect and shouldn’t even try to be perfect.  We all work together to support each other when we are down and cheer each other on when we are up. Do you know what adversity looks like in your life today and tomorrow?

“Every day 7 minor pieces of adversity will hit you and may throw you off your goals.  Every year 3 major pieces of adversity will shake your very roots!”

Adversity builds character. In football, being down 21 points at half time only to comeback and win in the 4th quarter builds character both in the winner and the loser. In golf, hitting over water can be stressful for the amateur weekend player as much as it is for PGA Tour professional Jordan Spieth come this week on hole #12. Here are several keys to overcoming adversity and be a Mentally Tough Leader.

  • Look for the learning opportunities in every adverse situation.
  • Be aware of, and accept that adversity is inevitable in life.
  • Cultivate faith, courage and resilience. The more of these qualities with which you are armed, the lesser the impact of the adversity.
  • Decide whether you will allow your experience to make, or break you. Depending upon how you choose to perceive it, it could go either way. 

2. Handling your Nerves

Too many players, like some junior leaders, handcuff themselves, because they can’t deal with their pre-game nerves resulting in the classic “choke.”  Being nervous is natural.  What’s upcoming is a great challenge. Biologically, when we are challenged, we are programmed with fear to “fight or flee.”  This means you can fight and do your best or you can flee by quitting and refusing to put yourself at risk.  When you are nervous, realize it’s a good thing.  You are nervous, because you want to do your best; we all feel or have felt that way.  Tap into it, harness it, embrace it and use it to your best ability.

“If you have butterflies, then invite them in and fly with them.” – Rich Lerner

Nerves provide energy allowing leaders and players to live up to their potential.  This nervous energy rising up in you lets you know that you are about to ignite the fuse that fires you into game mode where you leave everything you have on the field. Here are several keys to handling nerves and be a Mentally Tough Leader.

  • Prepare in advance for what’s upcoming – research, gameplan, rehearse
  • Visualize the process and the end result – see the end in mind, how it will unfold and the evolution to the desired end result.
  • People don’t think about you and what you do that much really. 

3. Dealing with Your Coaches

From coaches, advisers, mentors and the like, we all have a vested interest in your success. In sports, it is the coaches’ job to teach you the skills, techniques, and strategy of the game.  In the office, it is the coaches’ job to help you uncover the skills, intangibles, techniques and strategy of leadership. We are also responsible to motivate you, in the game, but also in life.  In the game, most coaches will be upset at you when you make a mistake – whether it’s a mental error or an error of execution.  It some cases, it may be due to lack of effort.  Either way coaches will get “fuzzed up” as you should be with yourself, as your teammates may be, as your peers and colleagues may be and they will let you know it.  Repeatable mistakes can be prevented.  Your coach is your stake in the ground to keep you focused, grounded.

If you are a proven leader or player who is trying your best, then you are probably hardest on yourself.  So that is when the coach will try to lift you up as we know you are capable of getting the job done.  And when you make achievements, as you will, our joy comes from being the first to give you congratulations or a high five, and the loudest to cheer for you.  We know and appreciate how hard you have worked and how much you have put into doing what you do.

“Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid,” – Colonel David H. Hackworth

No one is perfect in life.  And the last thing we need is peers, colleagues and teammates second-guessing each other.  We can’t complain about each other, as we are all we have, but many of you do!  If someone else could have done it better, then they should be out there, stick there necks out on the noose of accountability and rock on.  The other “know it all’s” who can’t do anything at all, but bitch, moan and complain, e.g., Funsuckers, make plenty of noise. The mentally tough leader has the courage to render “them” irrelevant. Stick with the golden rule, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”  There is no criticism. There may be chastisement and there will be feedback from your coach or adviser. Take it to heart and you will become a Mentally Tough Leader.

  • Treat feedback as a gift
  • Separate your role from your own identity
  • It’s not about who’s right or wrong.
  • Direct the advice in a way that serves you, without emotions or defensiveness
  • Where appropriate, make amends for past issues. Own it, apologize for it and commit to being better.
  • After the meeting concludes, it’s up to you to ask yourself: Was the advice accurate? Was it valuable? Will you do something, anything about it? 

4. Enjoy the Journey

“Do you love being the/a leader?”  You will hear this question often. I had an employer who was at the pinnacle, the best in his given field. During our third interview, he went on about how learning from him will be congruent (his exact words) to an advanced degree at an Ivy League school, AND I should be willing to pay him for the learning he will impart on me, IF I was the successful candidate. One of my B-school peers was up for the role also and we compared notes afterwards, and yes, we both cowered to say, “sure, that makes sense to pay you” as any naive soul would do under that level of pressure and scrutiny. If you love being the servant leader, then you have more than enough capacity to be mentally tough.

…without the Struggle, there is no Story…

You must have a zest and the enthusiasm to get up in the morning to get to the office and lead, to learn, to practice, to be prepared for adversity and to be mentally tough.  Ben Hogan famously said, “There’s golf and there’s tournament golf.” Tournament golf has been likened to a game of chess where each move sets up consecutive shots and every golfer is like different pieces with different abilities.  The game of golf involves the most strategy, and the most preparation. It is a game of mistakes where the victor is usually the one that makes the fewest errors, overcomes adversity, who’s mentally tough and executes the best.  To do this you have to be totally committed and focused.  You cannot perform successfully as a leader if you are unhappy being here and simply going through the motions.  The best way to lead, and the best way to get something out of this experience, is to always be ready to answer what you hold dear inside you, “yes, I love to lead.” Being a Mentally Tough Leader means you enjoy the journey and the people around you more than the title and trappings.

5. Have Productive Practices

We are challenged daily with leaders who say everyday is game day. How’s that going for you? Your actions, behaviors and communication style in your work climate IS your practice. Eventually, everyone and I mean everyone will show you who they are given enough time. We all take our bad behaviors with us from job to job. Every leader has some bad behavior(s), and some will adapt and change and some couldn’t give two cents to change. That’s the work climate we all live in – not your culture.

You will lead how you practice your leadership. If you cut an occasional corner, if you sometimes skirt by an issue here or there and if you hide something you don’t want anyone else to know about you, then your practice will rear its ugly head during a game somewhere. You will play how you practice. Disciplines and behaviors don’t lie! Practice must be more difficult than game time. Replicating the atmosphere can be difficult. If you do not enjoy practices, i.e., Alan Iverson, compared to the excitement and challenge of the game, we understand.

You must practice in order to play to your utmost potential.  There are many sayings and coaches who know that “you play like you practice,” and, “practice like champions.”  You cannot play or lead like a champion if your practice is mediocre.  You will go into a division, and organization, games flat and unprepared for the challenges of tournament speed and competitions.  You need to work on your execution – your assignments, responsibilities, strategy, timing, and completion of each play.  You need to work on the transitions of the game.  From long game to recovery shots, from team communications to leveraging internal high potentials. One reason competitive golfers practice every situation so they will not be “caught with their pants down” on game day.  To ensure good “practices” at work Mentally Tough Leaders make sure you can do the following:

  • Be on time
  • Have all your equipment in proper order
  • Come with enthusiasm (its contagious, be the disease)
  • Live the role of a servant leader.
  • Always ask questions and learn from them.
  • Help out. Serve. Contribute. Lend a hand.
  • Respect your team. Be kind and courteous to managers. Let them know they are appreciated with a simple “thank you.” 

6. Handling the Competition

Project deadlines, new product roll-outs, acquisitions and games can be stressful.  If you can’t deal with the competition to your best ability, it can bring your performance down.  Understand the nature of competition.  We have opponents in order to challenge us and to help us rise to the highest achievements we hope our potential can reach.  If we only had mediocre potential we would never feel the exhilaration of meeting these challenges.  We want to be the best, the best we can be, and this can only be achieved by playing other teams or competing with company’s who commit to being their best.  Being a Mentally Tough Leader means:

  • You won’t be intimidated, because others are so good.  The better they are the better it makes you, win or lose.
  • Respect everyone, and fear no one. 

7. Be an Elegant Leader

Sports are physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding just like your position.  It can wear you down in all areas.  Sometimes you will feel like you want to stop, and these doubts are natural.  As what you are doing will require more sacrifices than you have ever had to make, you will feel pain and agony you never thought you could handle – but you must.  When you adopt, embrace and model this mentality of simple, powerful and graceful leadership, you have achieved Elegant Leadership. An Elegant Leader who is Mentally Tough never compromises their core.

 Mentally Tough Leaders never:

  • Give up or quit
  • Abandon the team when they know they need them
  • Let pain stop them from playing 
  • Fear the risk of failure.
  • Let down their teammates or coaches.

Mentally Tough Leaders always:

  • Work as hard as they can to be the best they can and give everything they have
  • Put the team needs before their own
  • Relish the opportunity for achievement the game offers
  • Respect and are responsible to their teammates and coaches.

It goes without saying, to enjoy the game, to be a Mentally Tough Leader and get the most out of it, while also being a good person and player, you MUST always hold the utmost respect for every person involved in the game and your organization.

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