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5 Ways to Toughen Up as a Leader

Leaders can't afford to break down, lose their cool or be overly sensitive. They must lead well, no matter the ups and downs.

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Leading is hard. Despite the success and sometimes the glory leadership brings, the lows can be incredibly low. The job can feel lonely, especially when you must make unpopular decisions, own up to your failures and face regular questioning and criticism. 

All leaders must deal with stress, but the very best leaders handle the ups and downs with ease. They let things slide off their backs with resiliency, grace and grit. It's not always easy to do; I know from experience what it's like to receive tough feedback or be forced to make a decision that impacts people negatively. I know what it's like when a well-thought-out plan doesn't deliver a desired or expected outcome. Disappointment, frustration and insecurity can lead to a breakdown in leadership.

Leaders can't afford to break down, lose their cool or be overly sensitive. Instead, they must toughen up and lead well, no matter the ups and downs. Here are five ways you can toughen up when the going gets tough.

Be determined

Determination is an often-overlooked leadership attribute but is needed to get through difficult situations. You must be resolute in your vision, decision-making and resiliency. During the early days of the pandemic, the uncertainty was unbearable. Like so many other leaders, I had to make difficult decisions about expenses and staffing. I didn't want to lay off anyone, but I also knew that I had to protect the company's long-term health. As I scenario-planned, I kept one thing front and center — my determination to get through the downturn stronger than how we went into it. I was determined to keep my balance sheet in good shape and lead my team with transparency, compassion and strength. This determination helped drive my decisions and kept me focused and resolute.

Related: Power With Purpose: The Four Pillars Of Leadership

Know when to let go

The flip side to determination is knowing when to say, enough is enough; this isn't working. Resiliency isn't about constantly pushing through; resiliency is also about letting go and moving on. There are times when you must be tough enough to back down, let go or change your mind. Letting go isn't easy, especially if you've put your time, effort and reputation on the line. Humans tend to believe they are correct, especially when they've vocalized their opinions. But just because you think you're right doesn't make it so. And even if you are right, there is a cost to forcing your way. The toughest of leaders know when to let go and move on.

Look for the truth

It's natural to get defensive when receiving tough feedback or unpleasant news. But it doesn't mean you should allow yourself to go there just because it's a natural response. If you want to toughen up as a leader, you must handle yourself with grace when hearing hard things. My trick for doing this is to look for the truth in my information. Recently, I hired a consultant to perform a leadership competency assessment for my executive team and me. When going through my results, he told me, "The reason you haven't grown the company faster is that it takes you too long to assess and then tell people on your team that they don't have what it takes to go to the next level. You let things slide for too long. You must step into giving this type of feedback faster and more directly. It's a problem for you." Ouch, his words stung. I was inclined to defend myself and was going to say that I give people feedback all of the time, and that I am not afraid of these conversations. Instead of vocalizing these thoughts, I analyzed what he shared. I compartmentalized the type of feedback I gave people, and I could see that he was right. I give underperformers far too many chances to turn things around. I also believe that people can grow into roles beyond their current capabilities with enough hard work and desire — because that's what I did. But that's not always the case. I have let people flounder in roles for too long, which ultimately hurt the company. I looked for the truth in his words and faced the feedback with action. I resolved not to let it hold the company or me back in the future.

Related: Why Self-Leadership is Essential to Your Success

Find gratitude

When most people think of gratitude, they envision what they are grateful for in life, such as family, health and possessions. A more profound gratitude practice considers being thankful for the hard things in life as well. If you want to be a strong leader, you must look for the good that comes out of difficult situations. Whenever I am faced with hardship, I focus on the life lessons I am learning and the growth that will come from overcoming obstacles and hard times. I use adversity to build stronger relationships and learn more about myself and others. The hardship I am most grateful for in my life is overcoming addiction. Even though I caused pain and suffering in my life and others, I wouldn't change it for anything. I am grateful for what addiction taught me and how it propelled me to make different decisions in my life. Overcoming addiction toughened me up and made me a better leader. How can I not be grateful for that?

Stop feeling sorry for yourself

It's harsh but true; exceptional leadership requires you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Being a leader is difficult and sometimes thankless. But this is what you sign up for if you want to make an impact. You must stop taking things personally and let things slide off your back. Don't whine about the situations you face. Everyone will have an opinion about you. Your job is to make good decisions for your team and company, not manage people's opinions. Your job is to model what it's like to take feedback well. Your job is to lead, so lead with confidence. Vow always to be cool, calm and collected. Accept responsibility for everything that happens to you, your team and your company.

With leadership comes great responsibility — a responsibility to make good decisions. Be transparent, give and receive feedback and withstand setbacks and disappointment. To be a great leader, you must toughen up. Toughening up doesn't mean armoring up. Instead, it's finding the sweet spot between compassion, self-care, flexibility, resolve, self-determination and grit.

Related: 10 Leadership Essentials for 2022

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