Why Every Leader Needs Mental Toughness

This attribute gets at the heart and soul of effective leadership.

learn more about Karima Mariama-Arthur

By Karima Mariama-Arthur

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There are plenty of theories about how someone becomes a successful leader. From experiencing a life-altering crucible to having strong communication skills or well-developed emotional intelligence, we see effective leaders as having distinctive qualities that bolster influence and catapult their success.

When we can't clearly articulate those qualities, we often allude to the default: je ne sais quoi, that undeniable "it factor." However when we see leaders who display an above-average mindset, coupled with strong will and the ability to transcend insurmountable odds, we refer to that remarkable cadre of skills as as mental toughness.

Related: 15 Habits of Mentally Tough People

Mental toughness has been described as the "ability to work hard and respond resiliently to failure and adversity -- the inner quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals."

Steve Siebold, mental toughness expert and author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class, teaches that a person of average intelligence and modest means can become world class by implementing the thinking, habits and philosophies associated with this principle. Vince Lombardi believed that mental toughness was one of the most important leadership skills you could attain.

If you're a leader and want to become more effective, know this: Mental toughness is a fundamental skill set, and the magnitude of your success depends on it.

Here's why.

1. It creates a winning mindset.

Although mental toughness is primarily linked to the psychological concept behind peak performance (i.e. mental training for competitive edge in sports), it's really about embracing the mindset of top performers, which goes far beyond the bounds of the athleticism. Thinking is the primary filter for every experience that you have. Mediocre thinking promotes an equally low standard of performance and results. A winning mindset (i.e. the thinking, habits and philosophies of elite performers) however, transforms the landscape. It unlocks the unlimited potential to create, influence and generate outcomes that activate success.

In his Harvard Business Review article "How the Best of the Best Get Better," sports psychologist Dr. Graham Jones (also former consultant to Olympic and world champions in at least seven games) says, "Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability -- coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities -- just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness."

Make no mistake: Leadership success depends on the non-negotiable ability to seize a profoundly powerful mindset -- the mindset of a champion.

Related: Cultivate These 8 Habits to Achieve Peak Performance in Life and Business

2. It builds character and promotes stick-ability.

Leadership is not fundamentally focused on winning and celebrating success. Leaders know that tough times come with the territory. Delving deeply into the trenches, grappling with hardships and doing whatever it takes to succeed is par for the course. They welcome obstacles and uncertainty for their potential to make them smarter, more agile and resilient.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth refers to the ability to thrive during adversity as grit. Her research has demonstrated that it's a true predictor of success, even more than cognitive and technical skill sets.Touché.

One of the exceptional hallmarks of mental toughness is that it helps leaders to reach for their "why." This is especially important during difficult times -- when commitment may wax and wane. The internal drive to achieve goals despite setbacks is what distinguishes the world class from average performers.

Related: No One Said Building A Company Was Easy: Overcoming The Psychology of The Tech Entrepreneur

3. It provides the courage to challenge the status quo.

Next practices (vs. best practices) are all about innovation. Elementary to the exercise of leadership, they signal forward movement and progress, rather than a wanton commitment to archaic principles and practices of the past. Because the whole premise of mental toughness is built on the willingness to face fear, take action and thrive in the midst of adversity, courage is a leadership imperative. It would be difficult, perhaps even impossible to lead without the willingness to encounter turbulence and face the unknown.

Courage allows leaders to flourish in environments that constantly change. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth. A catalyst for healthy self-esteem, it also helps leaders to effectively navigate stress, conflict and crises. Simply put: Mental toughness is an unmatched mechanism for growth. Conjure it up. Grab the fortitude to explore uncharted territories personally and professionally.

Are you a leader? If so, do you have the mindset of a champion? If not, reach for the courage of your convictions and strive to become mentally tough. After all, your success depends on it.

Karima Mariama-Arthur

Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport

Karima Mariama-Arthur is the founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, an international consulting firm located in Washington, D.C. that specializes in professional development. She trains, coaches and consults for individuals and organizations on the dynamics of complex communication and high-performance leadership competence. 

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