Mental Toughness at Work

Mental toughness: an interesting subject. Not that long ago, I worked with a senior manager who poured scorn on my suggestion that we should test the mental toughness of new hires. “Don’t be silly, they’ll be fine,” he said, “waste of time.” I’ll be characteristically blunt. In the high-pressure environment of modern work and broader life, that’s utter rubbish. If you need people to perform under pressure of any sort, they have to be mentally tough or at least prepared to develop such toughness. Example?

Mental Toughness Defined

Ben Stokes’ innings in a recent Ashes cricket test match at Headingly, Yorkshire took the breath of many cricket fans away. He seized the initiative and set many records. Following his colossal bowling stint in the previous Australian second innings, his 135 not out was very nearly the stuff of legend. He is mental toughness defined.

Stokes stretched himself to the extreme, while, in blocking almost all of the first 50 balls bowled to him, demonstrated a capacity to learn and adapt to conditions. In this, his ability to cope with challenges is extraordinary. His commitment to goals through quite remarkable delivery of skills is exemplary. His faith in his abilities, coupled to and an exceptional level of inter-personal confidence is awe-inspiring. Given an unfortunate prior record in aggressive encounters on and off the field, the degree of control in his life and emotions across a testing few hours was breath-taking.

It Takes Two

Now, that was Stokes: a world-class batsman. At the other end was Jack Leach, no mug with a bat, but last man in and 73 to win! You want tough? The challenge? Keep Stokes on strike and don’t get out. Commit to the same goals, have confidence in yourself, and Stokes. Control is crucial, that and making sure your glasses are clean. No pressure.

So Stokes earned many plaudits. His toughness is unquestionable. However, the bloke at the other end? You can’t win a match like that if the last man in isn’t equally tough. Stokes spoke in praise of Leach’s fortitude. He wasn’t wrong.

Shovelling Stuff

Mental toughness in any workplace, sporting or otherwise, is central to the success of individuals. It’s an especially important set of leadership qualities (challenge, commitment, confidence, control), and is a foundation for assuring high growth. Stokes and Leach are leaders. My former colleague is a manager (at best). Did I mention that one of the roots of the word manager relates to clearing out stables with your hands? Not all managers shovel stuff, but the best ones are leaders too.

So the next time you’re watching a Ben Stokes or indeed a Steve Smith, appreciate that core of toughness that runs through their head. It’s a steel strand of breakthrough leadership.

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