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Why Leaders Need a Mental Game

Why do leaders need a mental game?  A strong mental game is needed to prevent leaders from falling into critical self-statement traps such as:

“I have to…”

“I should have…”

“Why can’t they…”

Leaders are ultimately judged by the performance of their teams. Beyond making critical team-oriented decisions, a leader’s job is to provide the motivation and resources which allow the team to succeed. Interestingly enough, a leader’s performance often indirectly influences a team’s performance. The lack of direct control on team performance results in added pressure on the leader and an increased need for trust. All this can lead to these three self-statements listed above. 

The following are examples of how mental training around Valor’s core competencies can combat these poisonous thoughts and help leaders and their teams strive for excellence.

“I have to…” This pressure packed statement, at first sight, seems harmless. In small doses, it represents determination. In large doses, it represents both worry about the future and a lack of trust in yourself as well as your team.  

  • Values Endurance: There is a certain comfort in knowing your values and strengths. These underlie your philosophy as a leader and ultimately facilitate the prioritization of your work. Focus on your strengths to get the job done and then empower others to help the team reach its goal. 
  • Mental Agility: The “I have to” mindset requires a shift and that is where mental agility comes into play. Mentally tough leaders recognize when they are “pressing too hard” and can shift their focus to acceptance and trust as needed. A good way to start this is by reframing the “I have to” statements to opportunistic self-talk and then focus on the key task at hand.

“I should have…”  It’s one thing to ask yourself, “what could I have done,” as this is functional reflection. The word “should” though almost always accompanies a negative judgement about the past and is often followed by a self-deprecating thought like “I’m terrible.”  

  • Self-awareness power: This core competency is crucial to rectify all ineffective thinking. You can’t change what you are not aware of.  Specific to this, you must recognize when your mind is in the past rather than the present. The word “should” is a warning sign that your mind has drifted from a present focus to the past. Also, work to be more tuned-in to how you are feeling. Reflect on how you typically feel when you are worrying about the past so you can be more aware next time you are in that state. Then you can utilize your Valor competency of Emotional Flexibility!
  • Emotional Flexibility: You recognize your ineffective thinking and that you are feeling anxious, but then what? We have two hints here related to emotional flexibility. First, accept how you feel and that you are upset about some result. The more you fight that feeling, the worse off you’ll be. Once you do this, you can “allow” yourself to relax. There are a number of imagery and deep breathing techniques to help you learn how to relax. At Valor, we call a deep breath your “secret weapon.” Utilized by Olympians and corporate professionals, deliberate deep breathing initiates your relaxation response and can bring you back to the present moment.

“Why can’t they…”  If “I have to” is the start of lack of trust in a team, then this statement is the finishing move. We’ve all heard the cliche, “If you want something done right, you might as well do it yourself.” Most leaders will have to resist this feeling at some point, especially when something goes wrong or doesn’t get done.

  • Connection Strength: As noted, the key issue here is typically lack of trust. There are so many simple ways to connect with people that build trust. When something goes wrong the tendency is to point fingers. Sometimes, the better answer is to listen. Rather than blaming others or even yourself, finding out more about what happens can be a huge step toward trust. Better yet, as leaders build stronger relationships with their team, they naturally begin to empower people to do more for their team (empowerment is the opposite of “why can’t they”). The team may not always perform to your desired level, but that’s why we need optimism!
  • Optimism Conditioning: One great way to build trust is by handling adversity in productive ways. When things go poorly and seem to be out of our control, that’s when optimism is most useful. The truth is, team member mistakes are inevitable. The question is what do you do with this moment. Laying into your subordinate isn’t the right answer, nor is brushing it aside and saying mistakes are okay. Optimism is helping those you lead take responsibility and learning from the mistake. You can help them see its effects, but also realize that it is a temporary mistake that can be fixed. The optimistic leader also takes his or her own responsibility for the mistake and conveys energy to the team that WE can solve problems together. 

Leadership is not a role, it’s a process that requires elite performance. More than that, leaders are always performing because they are always being judged. The pressure is high, the stakes usually are too. Leaders with a strong mental game throw away the internal and external judgement and instead rely on their ability to focus on the critical factors that allow their teams to succeed.

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