Mental Toughness for Leadership and Life – Lessons from a Row Boat


Leadership isn’t easy. The barrage of challenges a leader has to face on a daily basis is enough to bring even the most experienced manager to the edge; budget cuts, staffing issues, reporting to the board. It’s not easy stuff; which is why resilience and mental toughness are such important skills for leaders to develop. But resilience is an important skill to have no matter what you do, leader or not. It is essential for navigating the trials and tribulations of our everyday lives; stress at work, relationship difficulties or physical ailments. In truth you never know when you’ll need to be resilient, and often you won’t realise you have this ability until you have to use it. Unfortunately resilience and mental toughness are not skills that come naturally to everyone; we’ve all witnessed, or perhaps experienced, something that it was almost impossible to recover from, and that may have changed the affected individual permanently. Sometimes this is what makes us stronger; sometimes it’s what makes it harder to carry on with even the everyday tasks. The difference between the two is resilience, and while it can be these momentous occasions that build our ability to bounce back, arguably it’s a bit of a risk to wait until this point. Being resilient shouldn’t just be about bouncing back or recovery after an event. It is also about making sure you do everything you can to manage yourself and the situation should disaster strike.

While exploring this in a recent event for leadership development at TLD, the issue of mental toughness was perfectly encapsulated by a guest speaker; Debra Searle, a woman who faced her fair share of adversity and struggles when she elected to set out on a transatlantic rowing voyage. Initially intending to be accompanied by her husband, only a few days in he began to experience a severe phobia of the ocean, leading him to abandon the race. With a difficult choice to make, Debra elected to carry on alone, without any external support, on a journey that ended up taking three months, and pushed her to the very edge of her limits. But despite the fears, loneliness and genuine danger Debra faced during the expedition, she never gave up; while she admits she came close at times, she never did. When faced with a dramatic and life changing challenge, Debra chose to see it as an opportunity, and she decided every day that she would face each new challenge as it came. When she finally completed the race (in last place and disqualified due to having to seek assistance to help her husband) Debra took everything she learnt during that time and actively put it into practice in her life back on land. She set up her own business and continued to explore new ways to test her limits; completing a number of expeditions and adventures throughout the world. Hearing or reading her story is truly inspiring, but not just because it is an extraordinary thing that she experienced, but mostly because when you hear her speak you realise Debra is just a person. She’s an incredible person, yes, but she’s not superhuman, she hasn’t trained to become this resilient and determined individual. She learnt these things along the way, and she’s a living example that mental toughness is something anyone can invoke to help them through hard times. The situation Debra faced undoubtedly contributed to her need to develop this resilience, but it wasn’t the situation that ultimately created it. That was Debra; it came as a result of the active choices she made during her time at sea, and her willingness to explore different ways to face unexpected challenges. She demonstrates perfectly that it is the thoughts, behaviours and choices of an individual that dictate how well (or not) they are able to face and manage adversity. So while being stranded in the Atlantic on a tiny row boat is not going to be the path to resilience for everyone, the lessons Debra learnt on-board are universal.

Choose your attitude

The way you approach an issue is entirely up to you; while other events and circumstances may influence your thinking and actions, they don’t control them, and one of the things Debra said was of the utmost importance in keeping her sane and gave her strength to carry on was her determination to choose her attitude. Each day she would explicitly state to herself what attitude she intended to adopt that day and would carry that with her as she went about the daily tasks necessary to keep her alive. If such a simple tactic can help a woman cross the ocean on her own in a minuscule rowboat, then imagine the power it can have (and how much easier it will be to implement) when facing daily challenges of life. Deciding on an attitude of gratitude, for example, can instantly change a disagreement with your boss into a positive, you might be grateful you had the chance to speak your mind, or even that you have a job and a boss to disagree with at all. Our perceptions and mind-set really are one of the only things we have control over so it’s essential that we use this control to build our mental toughness.

Control the controllables

Not everything is within our control, and in Debra’s situation, a lot of things were far beyond hers. Once she recognised this as a statement of fact she reports she felt much more able to reduce her anxiety about the things she couldn’t control, by focussing more acutely on the things she could. For many of us we waste so much time and energy trying to control other people, situations and even the future, all of which is out of our hands. When you accept this and refocus on what you can affect, it becomes much easier to relax about the things you can’t. You can’t for example control how a colleague will react if you do something wrong, but you can control how you respond to their reaction, and frequently that’s the part that will have the effect. Decide what you can and can’t control, and start working on the things you can, the rest will happen anyway.

Rehearse challenging situations

Sometimes the anxiety (or excitement) we feel about something is so distracting it can be hard to think of anything else; for Debra it was how she would feel when she finally reached the shoreline, for others it may be how they will feel when presenting to an important client. Luckily you can do what Debra did; she rehearsed the scene in her mind over and over, so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed when it finally happened. This is a strategy anyone can adopt; if you are nervous about something, rehearse it; play it in your head exploring all the possibilities and most importantly, practice how you will respond to them if they should occur. Feeling prepared is crucial to our confidence, and when you can’t prepare in practice, prepare in your mind. But don’t obsess, practice until you feel comfortable and confident and then leave it alone.

light rough seasMental toughness is something everyone needs; you don’t have to be embarking on a cross Atlantic challenge to face adversity. In fact most often it is the everyday situations that are the most formidable, and having tools in place to battle these is essential. Choosing your attitude, focussing on what you can control, and mentally preparing are all extremely valuable weapons in your fight for mental toughness. But there’s so much else that can be done, simple things such as taking care of your health; eating and sleeping well and getting exercise are vital. As Debra knows from the experience of only getting limited sleep and having pot noodles to eat; if you’re not physically strong, it’s much harder to be mentally strong.

It’s also important not to try and face challenge on your own; Debra reported that the loneliness was the very worst thing about her voyage, and it was this more than anything that almost led to her giving up; people need people to survive and thrive, so don’t face adversity alone, seek help and support. Part of being mentally tough is being able to ask for help.

We’d all like to think we’ll never experience difficulties in life but the reality is that it happens, and at some point your resilience will be put to the test. It might not involve a rowboat, but it will involve you facing your fears and desperately trying to get out the other side. You’ll never really know how mentally tough you are until put to the test, but as Debra’s testimony proves, being prepared and proactive in your decisions makes it a whole lot easier, in the ocean and on land, and she knows, she’s experienced both.

If you’d like to discover more about building your mental toughness and emotional wellbeing we are running a FREE Organisational Wellbeing Masterclass on May 4th 2016. To find out more and book your place please call us on 01293 580418. Please note numbers are strictly limited and spaces cannot be guaranteed until booked.