Mental resilience: Do leaders need to be born with it?

Steve Preston columnist
Steve Preston, founder and managing director of Heat Recruitment

We all admire those who have achieved great success following adversity. Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times before his lightbulb moment came, while Bill Gates’ first business failed miserably. Success eventually came in a spectacular way for both men but what kept them going when all seemed lost?

Dogged determination to see the task through to the end takes a certain degree of mental toughness. Where others give up without knowing how close they were to the finish line, great leaders have the strength of mind that drives them to go beyond the limits.

Quite how they do this has long been the subject of much discussion, and a recently published study attempts to shed light on the subject.

Following a decade of research into leadership, Sam Walker in his book The Captain Class found that “the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness, is the character of the player who leads it.” A critical trait of each of these leaders is their ability to overcome failure and adversity in order to drive the organisation towards its long-term goals.

As a former Royal Marine, I recognise the importance of mind over matter – to never allow myself to be beaten and recognise that each step taken was getting me closer to the end goal. It’s akin to a marathoner – the ‘will’ to go beyond even when the body is hurting, and the mind is screaming for you to stop.

As Winston Churchill famously said, when you’re going through hell keep going. He was right of course. However, I wonder if mental resilience is a trait that can be learned as much as it one that is inherent?

Knowledge, skills and experience can take people so far. But attitude and mental toughness are needed in equal measure to be truly successful in today’s ultra-competitive and increasingly pressurised business landscape. Yet mental toughness can, to an extent, be developed.

With an acute self-awareness and understanding of one’s own mental limitations, the mind can be easily developed. The mind is like a muscle – the more it is worked the stronger and more efficient it becomes.

Simply visualising the goal and reframing each obstacle and challenge that comes along as something that tests and improves themselves will advance it. Rather than being frustrated or disappointed, successful leaders take the bad and turn it on its head – from defeat to victory.

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