Mental toughness—the ability to be resilient and focus, make decisions, and function, even in the midst of challenging circumstances or adversity—is a coveted trait among leaders. Marines and Navy SEALS have written books about how to develop it. Companies look for it when hiring.
But mentally tough leaders who are effective aren’t those who ignore their own emotions or those of others, says Tim S. Grover, CEO of Attack Athletics, a physical training firm, and author of Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable. Grover, who has worked with professional athletes like Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade, says the most mentally tough individuals also typically have the highest emotional intelligence quotient.
In 2018, researchers from the Dublin Business School found that mental toughness is “grounded in the ability to successfully utilize emotions.” They also found that mental toughness levels were positively associated with higher emotional intelligence, which they defined as “an individual’s ability to direct their thoughts and actions based upon reflection on the feelings and emotions of themselves and others.”
Effective mentally tough leaders don’t ignore or run roughshod over emotions. They actually have surprising insight into their own emotions and those of others. Here are three things mentally tough leaders know about emotions:
Emotions aren’t a sign of weakness
As organizations become less hierarchical and flatter in their management structures, considering the feedback and emotions of others is essential, says leadership consultant Jeffrey Deckman, author of Developing the Conscious Leadership Mindest for the 21st Century. Making unilateral decisions without considering how they will impact others—and the feelings that will result—doesn’t work anymore.
“One of the problems with the Navy SEAL, Top Gun, ‘alpha’ paramilitary style of leadership methods is that they are designed for a military culture, not a civilian business culture. For that reason alone, their effectiveness will always be limited,” Deckman says. Leadership styles must suit the organizational culture to be effective.
But it’s also important to not allow your emotions to be used against you in high-stakes situations. When Grover works with elite athletes, he says they get in a “zone” state that may seem emotionless, but is actually highly attuned to what they’re feeling and what’s going on around them. Michael Jordan would keep his emotions under wrap and under control, because during a game situation the opponent would always try to get him to react in a certain way, Grover says. “He would always control that part of his emotional state, and then let it out once the game is over in the locker room where nobody else was able to see.”
Empathy is essential
Business and brand consultant Jennifer Shafiro was once overseeing a team of eight developers in a small New York City startup. She had been brought in because of her toughness and analytical nature. The CEO and COO wanted more out of the team and Shafiro was tasked with upping performance. Shafiro set some hard deadlines and budget parameters.
But, as she started to get to know the team members, she realized that they were overworked and burned out. “The leadership brought me on board because I was tough, and they thought they just needed to drive a tougher line. But in fact, they just needed to stop and listen and understand where the guys were coming from,” she says. By being empathetic and able to gauge the emotions of the team, she had a better sense of what the real problems were. She was then able to bridge the gap between the developers and leadership, solve some of the issues, and finish the project on time and successfully, she says.
Understanding emotions isn’t getting immersed in them
You can be good at understanding emotions without letting them overwhelm you or stopping you from making the best decisions, says Inna Khazan, clinical psychologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She says people sometimes get stuck in empathy—feeling what the other person is feeling, especially if those feelings are strong.
Sometimes, we need to also use perspective-taking, which is a more objective understanding of the emotion without actually feeling it and focus on compassion, which means supporting the person feeling the emotion, also without necessarily feeling the same thing. When we can remove ourselves from the strong feelings, it’s easier to make clear, objective decisions, she says.
“True mental toughness is the ability to be able to feel and understand, and have empathy for what people feel,” says Deckman. “But also, to be able to have the discipline for where that doesn’t cause you to overcompensate, either one way, where those feelings suck [you] into a vortex, or the other way, where [you] can’t allow any feelings.”