Mental Toughness for the New Normal

By Renita Kalhorn

Do you ever catch yourself thinking that maybe all of this – this pace of relentless change and uncertainty – is really just temporary? That we simply have to ride it out and, eventually, we’ll go back to the way it used to be. You know, pre-9/11, before the financial meltdown, without the weekly slew of disasters, natural and man-made.

Well, enjoy the fantasy because this is the new normal.

“The pace of change in our world is speeding up,” said Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch, “accelerating to the point where it threatens to overwhelm the management capacity of political leaders.” And he said it back in 1996.

More recently, the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study reported: “Today’s complexity is only expected to rise, and more than half of CEOs doubt their ability to manage it. Seventy-nine percent of CEOs anticipate even greater complexity ahead.”


This leaves our psyches caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, many of our conventions and belief systems remain rooted in the industrial age- command and control leadership and either-or, linear thinking.

On the other hand (in the developed world at least), we’ve got retailers offering same-day delivery services, phone apps minimizing the wait for a cab or a date, and movies and TV shows streaming in seconds. We’ve gotten used to a life of comfort, convenience and instant gratification, and we’re thrown off guard when there’s the slightest delay, much less hardship.

So here we are, in a growing culture of impatience, facing increasing complexity and uncertainty with “old-world” thinking – not a friendly combo! Take that dichotomy to the workplace and winging our mental preparation just won’t cut it: if we want to maintain high performance and competitiveness, training our minds to be “mentally tough” will become more important than ever.


I don’t mean, by the way, the stereotypical image of mental toughness — some steel-jawed guy gutting it out with sheer brute force or stoicism.

Rather, it’s more like a broad spectrum of mental capabilities that allow a person to adapt and excel in diverse circumstances. Certainly, there are the usual suspects: perseverance, self-confidence, courage and focus. But the repertoire of mental toughness also includes curiosity, agility, imagination to see beyond the current reality – and the meta-ability to learn and master new ways of thinking.


So leaders who want to expand their management capacity need to train themselves to think differently. What does that mean exactly? In my recent Mental Toughness Summit, I interviewed 11 experts on mental toughness in leadership, and these were the recurring themes – the modes of thinking — that emerged:

Adopt a stance of “not-knowing.”

In the traditional command-and-control leadership style, the leader has all the answers. Even faced with limitless amounts of information, some are attempting to keep up the ruse. Give it up.

“Not-knowing” is not to be confused with being ignorant.

In fact, Les McKeown, advisor to dozens of founder/owners and CEOs, says: “I’ve noticed an interesting pattern: The weaker the leader, the more they know… strong leaders know they can’t–and shouldn’t–know everything about their business,” and they build strong teams that they can trust.

In a larger sense, operating from a stance of “not-knowing” means being truly open-minded, listening without automatic judgment or simply to confirm what you already believe.

Do You QuantumThink? author Dianne Collins explains: “Suppose you are having a “problem” with John, a team member who, in your assessment, has a negative attitude and is slowing down the accomplishment of an important business project. If you are attempting to change John’s negative attitude, by definition you are already relating to him as if he “is” negative – thereby keeping “negative attitude” in place. If you can relate to John as enthusiastic, creative, and effective, you open the possibility of leaping to a new and vitalizing Intent (i.e., a different context) with your relationship with John.”

Imagine the possibilities that would open to you if everything you thought as fixed were actually fluid.

Develop a growth mindset.

One of the critical aspects of mental toughness is the ability to learn and grow from failure. Thing is, leaders who have what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, believe their basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits (there’s that “f” word again). They see failure as a reflection of their ability so failing means that they inherently don’t have the ability – so they give up.

With a growth mindset, however, you believe that your most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work-brains and talent are just the starting point – and you will view failure as an opportunity to learn, and effort as a path to mastery.

Motivational psychologist Heidi Halvorson explains: It’s the difference between thinking, “I don’t know how to do this,” and “I don’t know how to do this¬†yet.”

Give up resistance.

One of the hardest parts about adversity is not actually the hardship itself but the resistance to accepting that it’s there to begin with. That’s right, grasshopper. Appreciate constraints. Embrace the suck, welcome the struggle.

As Leadership and the Art of Struggle author Steven Snyder points out: “When you say, “Yeah, I don’t know everything and there’s a lot to learn and if I could be open to it then I will be so much better off because I can embrace this as opposed to fighting it.”

This simple shift in perspective can refuel your motivation and grit – without the circumstances changing.

Control your focus.

Where you place your attention determines how you experience life. You probably know that. But are you consciously paying attention – or just reacting?

In these times of extreme distraction, that’s critical — having the ability to focus your attention as easily as you would direct the beam of a flashlight, even under duress or intense emotion.

What’s more, psychology is showing us that there are a number of ways to frame focus: narrow vs open; prevention vs promotion; process vs outcome. Being able to distinguish and toggle between them at will is what will give you a sense of control and mastery in the face of growing complexity and uncertainty.

That’s where practice and training comes in. In fact, becoming fluent in these various modes of thinking will set the foundation for a mental toughness mindset – and set yourself up for success.

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