Mental Toughness and Peak Performance: In Work, Leadership and Life, It Matters

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” ~ Winston Churchill

Have you ever wondered what sets the top athletes apart from the rest? Physical strength and skill certainly play a role, but what truly separates the champions from the average is their ability to push their mind and body beyond what most of us would know as the absolute outer limits to deliver on their responsibilities.

Their ability to persevere in the face of physical and emotional stress, high pressure, and sometimes extreme adversity, is a major critical factor that enables these champions to consistently perform at their best and to fulfill their commitments to themselves and their teammates.

I began studying high performance academically as a young professor and doctoral student before studying it in the workplace. This quest to learn new things so that I could always stay at the top of my own game continued throughout my career, across five continents as a senior executive in a publicly traded company, and now as a consultant across multiple industries — from health care to large companies, from nonprofits to entrepreneurial ventures and across many different languages and cultures.

In my experience, a critical element of achieving success in any endeavor is taking ownership of one’s actions and being accountable for the outcomes resulting from those actions, regardless of the external situation, circumstance or pressure. Whether in sports, work, volunteer projects or at home, this willingness to be held accountable, even in the face of extreme difficulty, is the foundation of peak performance as well as personal fulfillment.

Occasionally, however, we get blindsided by the unexpected setbacks of life. As the familiar bumper sticker reads, “S#@+ Happens!” We don’t always know what is going to happen or when. Such was the case in March 2020 and beyond, as the world faced a global pandemic. The sudden shift to remote work, stress and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic, and the blending of work and home life all contributed to seemingly unbearable circumstances for many people. Additionally, the ongoing isolation and physical distancing measures also took a considerable toll. Often, when we get hit with these unexpected challenges or hurdles, we stumble. And when we stumble, we sometimes find it hard to bounce back.

Mental toughness refers to keeping one’s focus and persisting even when things don’t go as planned. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines mental resilience (toughness) as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even major sources of stress.”

For our purpose, we define mental toughness as “the quality of being adaptable, with the ability to bounce back despite significant adversity, and to remain focused on a desired outcome regardless of the external situation, circumstances or pressure.” Additionally, we will use the term synonymously with the terms mental resilience, mental strength, stamina, strength of character, perseverance and grit.

It has become clear that mental toughness isn’t just for athletes — it’s a valuable trait in any area of life. Whether we’re facing a personal challenge, a difficult work situation or a personal failure, being able to regroup, adapt and persevere, despite the setback is a hallmark of being mentally strong and resilient. Being mentally tough does not mean we are able to avoid periods of distress, difficulty or even significant physical and emotional turmoil. These things are common in people who face major adversity, setback, failure or even trauma. Rather, mental toughness enables us to persist through this distress and difficulty, often even in spite of it.    

The Impact of Mental Toughness

Developing a degree of mental toughness prepares us to be the best versions of ourselves despite the challenges we face from day to day. It helps us sustain our efforts, persevere through discomfort, rebound from temporary setbacks, as well as achieve and sustain peak performance across multiple areas of our lives.

In sports, athletes who have mental toughness are highly likely to produce favorable performance outcomes in ways that promote sustained motivation. For example, golfers with higher levels of motivation have lower levels of anxiety. So, motivation and mental toughness tend to be tightly linked, leading not only to positive results but also to reduced anxiety and emotional strength and stability.

Being mentally tough not only improves our personal and professional lives; it also brings many benefits to organizations. According to Mental Toughness Partners, research conducted throughout the world found that people with better and higher levels of mental toughness, as measured by the MTQ48, tend to enjoy many benefits, including the following:

• Increased aspirations: Greater confidence and ambition in the achievement of defined targets and a stronger willingness to persevere.

• Adaptability to change: A lower and calmer stress response to organizational changes.

• Greater well-being: Improved stress management and higher levels of contentment.

• Improved positivity: An easier adoption of a “can-do” approach leads to better connectivity and rapport with colleagues.

• Better performance: Accounting for up to 25 percent of variations in organizational performances.

Mental Toughness in Crisis

A recent study of several thousand subjects, including employees from multiple organizations, found only a small percentage of subjects to be mentally resilient. Several other researchers have found that employees in organizations worldwide increasingly lack a baseline degree of mental toughness. The following paints the picture:

• According to the American Psychological Association, burnout and stress are at all-time highs across multiple professions and among healthcare workers.

• In 2021, American workers saw heightened rates of burnout, with 79 percent reporting some degree of work-related stress in the month immediately preceding the “Work and Well-being Survey.”

• Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported being negatively impacted by work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26 percent), lack of effort at work (19 percent), cognitive weariness (36 percent), emotional exhaustion (32 percent) and physical fatigue (44 percent).

• According to Gallup, around one-third of individuals worldwide reported feeling angry, worried, and stressed, and one in four workers experienced burnout either “always” or “very often.”

• Finally, the Mental Health Foundation reported that 74 percent of individuals had experienced stress to the level that they were unable to address or cope with it.

Cultivating and Developing Mental Toughness

Since the pandemic, many experts have called for employers to take definitive measures to more practically and deliberately address these issues and more proactively support the emotional well-being of their employees.

However, a systematic method for building mental resilience is not employed in most organizations.  A combination of factors has been shown to contribute to the development of mental toughness, some of which include:

• A positive view of self, as well as confidence in one’s strengths and abilities;

• The capacity to be deliberate and intentional, making realistic plans and taking steps to carry them out;

• Communication and problem-solving skills;

• The capacity and ability to manage and control strong feelings and impulses.

Different institutions, organizations and businesses have different training methods, programs and techniques to condition mental toughness. While some businesses are increasingly recognizing the importance of cultivating mental resilience in their employees in order to improve their well-being, productivity and overall performance, various military units are among the organizations that invest mostly heavily in mental toughness and resilience preparedness.

For instance, the U.S. Army employs a training program designed to help soldiers develop the mental toughness and resilience needed to cope with the stressors of military service called the Mental Resilience Training Course (MRTC). The Navy SEALs and members of the U.S. Marine Corps have reputations for being some of the most mentally tough individuals in the military.

Their training also includes specific components that are focused on building and maintaining this mental toughness. Some of the focus areas of these programs include helping soldiers deal more positively with stress, helping them learn to exert more emotional and mental control and helping them to work under intense pressure or stress for extended periods of time.

Mental toughness is essential for success in the workplace and in life. From the CEO to the entry-level employee, the ability to handle stress and uncertainty, to set goals and work effectively as a team can make a significant difference in both individual and organizational success. By understanding the importance of mental toughness and learning how to develop these (and other) skills, one can achieve greater levels of success while also experiencing greater degrees of personal and professional fulfillment.

It is important to remember that mental toughness is not a combination of fixed traits but rather, skills that can be developed and strengthened through self-awareness, training and practice.

Next month, we will explore specific strategies and techniques leaders and their employees can use to begin developing mental toughness.