If you think you're hard enough

If you think you're hard enough - In more carefree times, business gurus exalted leaders who admitted to frailty. Not any more. The task of sustaining growth in a sluggish market calls for driven, leather-skinned bosses. Whereas emotional intelligence was the mantra in the touchy-feely '90s, now it's mental toughness. What is that? And who possesses it? Stefan Stern reports.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In more carefree times, business gurus exalted leaders who admitted to frailty. Not any more. The task of sustaining growth in a sluggish market calls for driven, leather-skinned bosses. Whereas emotional intelligence was the mantra in the touchy-feely '90s, now it's mental toughness. What is that? And who possesses it? Stefan Stern reports.

Red Auerbach, coach to the all-conquering Boston Celtics basketball team in the 1950s and '60s, knew the difference between life's successes and failures. 'Show me a good loser,' he used to say, 'and I'll show you a loser.' Red's robust attitude might not find favour with some of today's kinder, gentler management theorists. Ever since the publication of Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence in 1995, managers have been encouraged to understand their colleagues' sensitivities, to 'feel their pain', to show a greater awareness of the moods and feelings of those around them.

Goleman's analysis has been developed by others, most notably by Greg Dyke's favourite gurus Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. In a Harvard Business Review article entitled 'Why should anyone be led by you?', Goffee and Jones argued that top managers need to show a degree of vulnerability or frailty to confirm their status as 'regular guys'.

'Leaders should let their weaknesses be known,' they wrote. 'By exposing a measure of vulnerability, they make themselves approachable and show themselves to be human.' Today's leaders have to be 'good situation sensors (able to) collect and interpret soft data'.

However, as Greg Dyke likes to say these days, let's cut the crap. There isn't much room for vulnerability and weakness at the head of businesses and organisations today. A persistently sluggish marketplace, and one that is being joined all the time by new competitors, means that the going is tough. It is time for the tough to get going.

This month, MT can exclusively reveal new research on some of life's winners that will cause Dr Goleman and his followers to rethink their theories on touchy-feely management. Professor Graham Jones of the University of Wales has been leading ground-breaking research into what he calls 'mental toughness' - the quality that helps elite performers to prevail while others fall by the wayside.

In extended interviews and discussions with some of this country's most successful sports stars, Jones and his colleagues have identified the characteristics that go to make up the mentally tough competitor. These are the people who keep going and who sustain high levels of performance even under extreme pressure. Over the next few pages, we profile 10 of these leaders, each one of them exemplifying a different characteristic.

They make for challenging and at times, perhaps, even rather chilling reading.

Adrian Moorhouse is a director of the management consultancy Lane4, which launched this and further research into elite performers (he also happens to be a former Olympic gold medallist in the 100 metres breaststroke).

He says insights into how elite performers function can give Lane4's work with executives a certain edge. 'Coaching people isn't just a case of sitting there saying 'we understand',' says Moorhouse. 'It's about identifying what really motivates you.

'Of course, 'toughness' doesn't mean being tough all the time,' he adds.

'The smart bit is knowing when to be tough and when to relax and restore your energies.'

Sceptics will question the use of sports psychology by those who make claims about the skills and attitudes required by people in business.

They should think again. Professor Jones is also a partner with Lane4, which has, over the past eight years, been carrying out change management and leadership development programmes with an impressive list of blue-chip clients. The prof and his colleagues have been successful in putting academic theories into practice.

'If you looked at the most successful business leaders,' says Jones, 'their profile would look like the one we have drawn.'

This view is supported by Nigel Walker, once a dashing, try-scoring winger for the Welsh rugby union team and now (armed with an MBA) head of sport for BBC Wales. 'The qualities of mentally tough performers in sport are inextricably linked to the qualities of leaders in business,' insists Walker. 'These are the people who will run through a brick wall to get what they want.'

Nice guys don't finish first, and for good reason. So wring out that hanky, and get real. Study our 10 main ingredients for true grit and see if you compare favourably to the heavyweights we have lined up. Come and try it, if you think you're hard enough ...

TEN VITAL TOUGH VALUES

SELF-BELIEF

Being convinced that you possess unique qualities and abilities that will enable you to achieve your goals and make you better than your opponents.

Mental toughness is above all else about self-belief. The face that looks back at you from the mirror: do you believe in it? Does it convince you?

If you do not possess deep self-belief, you are unlikely to convince anyone else that you're worth listening to or worth following. JACK WELCH betrayed not the slightest scintilla of doubt as he stormed away for two decades at the head of GE, turning it into one of the world's most successful businesses, a new bellwether for the US economy.

'We will be number one or number two in a business, or we will get out of that business,' Welch famously declared. Funny how he was sometimes prepared to put up with being second-best, if only temporarily. LORD BROWNE (left) has succeeded in dazzling both his entire corporation and his industry sector from his base at BP. Although not a showman, his quiet confidence and inner steel stem from a profound self-belief. His leadership has been almost too convincing. Recent downgrades on production targets suggest his managers have not shared the same level of confidence in their ability to deliver.

RESILIENCE

Recovering from setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed.

'We all have setbacks,' commented one of the participants in Graham Jones' research programme, 'but the mentally tough competitor doesn't let them affect him - he uses them.' Or as another one said: 'You have to come back, and stronger.' This aspect of mental toughness echoes one of Stephen Covey's 'seven habits', that 'between stimulus and response man has the freedom to choose'.

In other words, it is not events in themselves that matter, it is how you react to them and cope with them. ALAN SUGAR has taken risks, experienced successes and reverses, but has always pressed on to the next challenge, the next launch or target. Where lesser business figures might settle for quiet retirement, Sugar is unstoppable. That is perhaps the essential characteristic of serial entrepreneurs like SUGAR, STELIOS and RICHARD BRANSON (left). They do not allow the latest quirk of fate or bad luck to shake them from their purpose. There are even shades here - dangerous thought - of Nietzsche's belief: 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger.' Think about that the next time the chairman is giving you a bollocking.

FOCUS

Remaining fully focused on the task in hand in the face of specific, or personal, distractions.

In the view of one elite performer from the sample group, 'If you want to be the best, you have got to be totally focused on what you are doing'.

Another commented: 'There are inevitable distractions and you just have to be able to focus on what you need to focus on.' When TONY BLAIR (right) arrives back at the tied cottage that is No 10 Downing Street, and young Leo has a headache, Cherie is preparing for a case and Euan has rung up asking for a top-up on his monthly allowance, does the prime minister have time to feel sorry for himself? Or does he get on with the work in hand, whether it is Saddam Hussein, Jacques Chirac, Gordon Brown or getting himself some supper? Blair's ability to compartmentalise and to focus is one of his greatest leadership skills. Charged with running the country and playing a significant international role, he remains somehow undistracted by family life and pressing domestic concerns. JOHN BIRT, meanwhile, could not open a newspaper without seeing himself slagged off by anonymous colleagues during his time at the BBC. He saw through his reforms to the end and, at some personal cost - and arguably at some cost to the Beeb as well - won a renewal of the Charter and an extension of the licence fee, and he created the digital giant that is today's BBC.

DRIVE

Having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed.

Mild-mannered SIR TERRY LEAHY (below) can queue up quite unnoticed in one of his Tesco check-out aisles. He passes unremarked through his local high street. It wasn't any outward show that first drew Leahy to Lord MacLaurin's attention as he prepared to find a successor at the end of his long term running the UK's premier retailer. The former marketing director was identified as the crucial talent needed to lead Tesco on to its next stage of development.

Leahy's motivation and drive come from within. It is a quality that elite sports stars recognise. 'The motives have to be there for you; you have to really want it, because it's really hard work,' says one.

Internalised motives, according to Graham Jones, provide the performer with a frame of reference and meaning when the going gets tough.

The desire is so strong that the mentally tough performer 'would do almost anything within the rules to win'. Sainsbury, Safeway and the rest, as well as any farmers dealing with Tesco recently, would confirm this description of Leahy's way of doing business.

CONTROL

Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.

When President GEORGE W BUSH (right) went for his morning run on 11 September 2001 he was still that overgrown 'frat-boy', goofing around in the Oval Office after a dodgy election result. A few hours later, he was a world leader at one of the most dangerous moments in his nation's history. As Bob Woodward has testified in his recent book, Bush at War, daddy's boy seemed to rise to the occasion when facing his greatest test. At a meeting of the key players a few weeks after the al-Qaeda attack, Bush (according to Woodward's friendly account) calmed his colleagues' nerves. 'You know what? We need to be patient,' Bush said. 'We've got a good plan. Look, we're entering a difficult phase. The press will seek to find divisions among us. They will try and force on us a strategy that is not consistent with victory. We've been at this only 19 days. Be steady. Don't let the press panic us. Resist the second-guessing. Be confident but patient ... It's all going to work.' Now the control stakes are even higher.

RESOLVE

Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining discipline and effort under distress.

Generations of rugby coaches have urged their schoolboy charges to 'get in there where it hurts'. In business as well as sport, sometimes you have to take personal risks with your own safety and go through the pain barrier if you are going to achieve anything big. When PHILIP GREEN (right) bought out BHS, the struggling high street chain formerly known as British Home Stores, for pounds 200 million nearly three years ago, he took a massive risk with his personal fortune (pounds 50 million of his own money was invested). BHS was widely regarded as a turkey, and not a particularly appetising one at that. Today, the firm is worth five times as much and Green, the 100% owner, is sitting very pretty. Overcoming the pain of fear or nervousness is the key to success for risk-taking leaders. Only the truly mentally tough can do it. As one of Graham Jones' study group put it, this is all about 'being determined to carry out what you know you've got to do'. Another said: 'It's a question of pushing yourself; it's mind over matter just trying to perform under this distress and go beyond your limits.'

NERVES OF STEEL

Accepting that anxiety/pressure is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.

How is your investment portfolio looking at the moment? Healthy? Imagine how WARREN BUFFETT (overleaf), the 'sage of Omaha', must have felt in 1999 when teenage scribblers around the world were telling him he'd missed the boat on the dot.coms. This was a one-way bet, a fill-yer-boots chance in a lifetime to get rich quick. Buffett had the last laugh, of course, as investor after investor looked increasingly silly with each wave of dot.bomb disasters. Buffett held his nerve, stuck to what he knew - insurance, power companies, household goods - and is still counting his money.

'I accept that I'm going to get nervous,' said one elite athlete during Graham Jones' research period, 'particularly when the pressure's on. But keeping the lid on it and being in control is crucial.' Mentally tough leaders are not fazed by nerves or fear. They can handle the pressure.

They expect it - it goes with the territory of being at the top. It is merely another obstacle to be overcome on the way to success.

INDEPENDENCE

Not being adversely affected by others' good or bad performance.

Comparing yourself to others is usually unwise. You'll be filled either with a sense of inferiority or superiority. 'You just have to focus on you and your performance,' said one sports star. Don't look at others and say: 'I can't go that fast' or 'I'm not that brave.' When LUC VANDEVELDE (right) inherited the top job at Marks & Spencer a few years ago, he could easily have been intimidated by the performance of other high street businesses.

Indeed, for a while he talked up M&S's prospects, promising a turnaround within a matter of months. That proved to be a mistake. In time, however, Vandevelde's changes started to take effect, and a spring has returned to the step of the venerable retailer. The lesson is, concentrate on your own results. Don't measure yourself in terms of other people's achievements. That's what the mentally tough leader would do.

COMPETITIVENESS

Thriving in the pressure of competition.

Mentally tough performers 'are able to raise their game when the occasion demands it, no matter what has happened', according to the Jones research. 'If you are going to achieve anything worthwhile, there is bound to be pressure,' said one participant. 'Mental toughness is being resilient to and using the competition pressure to get the best out of yourself.' SIR ALEX FERGUSON (below) creates football teams in his own image. When Manchester United are playing well, they are hard-bitten, fearless and never beaten.

When United were one-nil down in the last seconds of the European Cup Final in Barcelona in 1999, the team refused to panic or throw in the towel. Moments later, when even some fans had given up on the game, they were two-one up and crowned as champions of Europe. Few relish competition as much as Fergie. His players certainly know all about his appetite for a fight - as confirmed by the 'hairdryer' moments when Sir Alex gets lets rip (David Beckham experienced a humdinger last month). If the leader has the stomach for a fight, the team will follow.

CHILLABILITY

Switching the focus on and off as required.

When MT's own Andrew Davidson first met GERRY ROBINSON (below), then Granada's chief executive, one quiet afternoon in 1995, Robinson calmly served tea and joked how little there was left for him to do. He launched the bloody battle for Forte only a few weeks later. Knowing when to relax, perhaps in preparation for the next big fight, is another key aspect of mental toughness. And if you need a role model for the occasionally laid-back but high-achieving executive, Robinson is your man. Back on the golf course whenever possible, Robinson knows when to stop. Leading a business, he has famously suggested, is all about getting a dozen or so big decisions right a year. The rest of the time, well, why not work on your short game? 'The mentally tough performer succeeds by having control of the on/off switch,' according to one member of Graham Jones' research group. 'There are other important things in my life which deserve my attention ... it's important I discipline myself to give them the time.' Lane4's Moorhouse agrees. 'You must be able to leave work behind - take your holidays, enjoy your weekends. Those periods help restore you and make sure you're ready for future challenges.'

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