Leaders are faced with thousands of choice points throughout each day. Some decisions are automatic and instant, while others are given deep thought. The ability to leverage these choices and sustainably create high performance no matter what else may be going on at the time—is what I call “mental fitness.” Mental fitness increases your capacity, impact, and influence as a leader.
You’ve likely heard politicians or the news media use the term “mental fitness” to indicate a requisite level of cognitive capability. However, I define it by focusing on optimized performance: “Mental fitness™ is your measurable ability to engage constructively in life and work every day, no matter what stressors you encounter. It is your capacity to consistently respond to challenges with optimal performance in the moment and minimal recovery time afterward.”
Mental fitness starts with the recognition that the real drivers of your leadership results are the hidden habits of your mind—the powerful, unseen, and entrenched perspectives you hold about yourself, others, and your world. These patterns of thoughts and beliefs (formed by your many experiences in life), whether you are conscious of them or not, drive you to behave in certain habitual ways. And that leads you to produce certain results—for better or for worse.
Mental fitness is most critical and transformative whenever you feel stressed, frustrated, or hindered in any way by your environment or by the people around you. In these situations, you inadvertently become triggered, and you default to behaviors that, to say it kindly, may not be optimal.
The Brain’s Take
When we feel threatened or triggered, we are not choosing how to respond but rather, we are only reacting. Our bodies physically react when our fear systems are activated. “Fight or flight” are patterns designed to keep us safe in times of stress. Our bodies are on full alert – our heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure increase. At the same time, our intelligence dulls. We are easily distracted, our thoughts are jumbled and our decision-making skills become more biased which can lead to poor choices.
During all of this, the region of the brain called the amygdala is activated. That part of the brain is extremely impulsive and not always rational. To balance the reactionary amygdala, we must strengthen the prefrontal cortex of our brain, a region important in decision making and social behavior. The prefrontal cortex allows us to manage our emotions and risk more effectively. When we work to strengthen this part of our brain, just as we would work out our muscles in the gym, we build our mental fitness.
Reactivity in the Workplace
Reactivity is how mental fitness shows up most often in the workplace. When that amygdala is active, people get defensive, say things they later regret, send an inappropriate email in the heat of the moment. In all of those scenarios, we are responding to the initial feelings instead of pausing, thinking and choosing to act differently. When a leader is reactive, it creates issues with interpersonal relationships.
I often meet executive coaching clients who manage ‘up’ and manage ‘down’ very well. They have a productive working relationship with their superiors as well as their direct reports. However, they are often ineffective in managing across with their peers. A lot of leaders take on a different personality when working cross functionally: they feel threatened so they are territorial of their department, employees, etc.
I recently started working with “Melissa” (not her real name) and quickly realized this lack of partnering was common in her leadership style. It came out in her 360 review, which is based on an employee self-assessment and peer reviews, as well as superior and subordinate feedback. She admitted she could relate to where the criticism came from as she worked well with her boss and direct reports but often clashed with other members of the leadership team from different departments.
We started working on MindMastery™, which is my proven proprietary method outlined in my new book Leading Lightly that works to create and sustain high leadership performance and personal well-being. First, you learn how to identify your mood state and understand that you alone are creating it. We work on how to manage, minimize and eventually eliminate these negative mood states (think anxiety, anger, stress, overwhelm, etc.). Over time and with a lot of practice, you learn how to reframe the situation to view it from another possible lens. That allows you to shift out of a negative state to a positive one.
In Melissa’s next leadership team meeting, a discussion began to get heated. One of her colleagues invited everyone to take a step back and look at the scenario from an enterprise-wide lens. He quickly brought the escalation of the situation down and provided context for consideration. At that moment, Melissa was aware of how she was about to react to her colleagues. She didn’t necessarily catch her reactivity in the moment, but that will come with more practice and time. Eventually, Melissa won’t need a colleague to diffuse the situation because she will be able to identify her triggers and control her reaction. Instead of always acting as if she is right and her colleagues are wrong, she’ll be able to look at things from her colleagues’ points of view that could be just as “right” as her own perspective.
Strengthen your Mental Fitness
By first identifying your mood state and then reframing the situation, you are working to strengthen your mental fitness. A leader who is able to identify their behavior and broaden their lens will be a more effective leader who is able to partner with others and create deep followership. Leadership is about impact and influence. Both grow when you increase your mental fitness.