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Take the Hit: The Breakfast of Champions and Great Leaders

When champions and great leaders hit a wall and reach inside they come up with “heart.” When occasional winners and “not-so-great” leaders reach inside they come up empty.

Stress is good for you. When you’re under it, you’re still able to hold onto your goals and drive toward them.It strengthens you, helps you focus, tests your mettle, and shows the world and more importantly you what you’re made of.

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If stress increases to the point of overwhelming you and overloading your ability to cope effectively, it crosses over into distress. At that point, you let go of your goals and instead focus on finding relief. If you don’t find that relief, you run the risk of stress inducing disappointment, which spirals into devastation and frustration. Then you’re left with retaliatory anger, and/or fear that will turn into panic.

This is when you will engage in self-defeating and often compulsive — as opposed to thoughtful and disciplined — behavior to avert sliding into feeling badly, or even awful. Compulsive behaviors — such as excessive eating, drinking, spending, or gambling — all have the ability to deflect you from distress. But they cost you, derailing you from your goals, and offering your competition the opportunity to pass you by.

Everybody has a threshold where stress crosses over into distress. The higher that threshold, the greater amount of pressure you can handle effectively and the better a leader you will be.

There is a term for this capacity. It is one of the clumsiest, but most descriptive terms in psychology. It is called “object constancy.” It is the ability to maintain an internal emotional and outward real connection — in relationships (with your co-workers, friends, or loved ones), to goals (your commitment to them), and to hope (your ability to look forward to the future) — after you have been frustrated, disappointed or frightened. It is the ability to keep disappointment at disappointment without it turning into discouragement, frustration at frustration without it becoming anger, and fear at fear without it escalating to panic.

Learning to feel and stay connected under stress is a matter of maturity and an ability that fewer people seem to achieve. The more mature you are, the greater your object constancy and ability to remain centered and steadfast through tumult and turmoil; the more immature you are, the lesser your object constancy. In neuroanatomical terms it is the ability to stay in your pre-frontal (human) cortex (check out this wonderful article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” for a feast on this topic) without sliding into your animal brain and acting by reflex.

This is why children will say, “I hate you,” to a friend or parent after they have been disappointed or sometimes merely told, “No.” It is also why immature wives and husbands will immediately go to, “Let’s get a divorce” or girlfriends and boyfriends will say, “Let’s just break up,” when many of them are disappointed or told, “No.” It is why ineffective leaders jump too quickly from one initiative to another or alternatively stay too long when they should cut their losses.

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Staying centered and keeping your cool is something that you learn “on the job.” The only way to learn it is to “take the hit” and when you do, bear down and resist allowing disappointment to slide into discouragement, frustration into anger, or fear into panic.

It is also a characteristic that is passed along from mentor to mentee, with the mentee frequently honoring his teacher by “paying it forward.” Keith Ferrazzi, one of my fellow Fast Company contributors (on Networking) and author of the best selling, Never EatAlone, has a wonderful way of using this relationship to galvanize managers who want to become leaders.

Ferrazzi believes that you rarely succeed in life alone. There is usually someone there who helped you achieve your greatest accomplishments. He suggests you make a list of the attributes these contributors to your success possessed. You’ll probably include such traits as: caring, forthright, honest, and holding themselves and others to high expectations. They probably also possessed a good deal of object constancy.

Now think of your subordinates and the people who look to you as a leader and ask yourself what adjectives they would select to describe you. If they select less inspiring, empowering and emboldening terms, do a “gap analysis” on yourself compared with those people who helped you accomplish what you did, and commit yourself to narrowing the gap.

Being able to “take the hit” not only separates great from not so great leaders; it is what separates champions from occasional winners in the world of sports. Occasional winners have talent and if it holds out, they might occasionally win a tournament. If however they run into a bad stretch, their talent is not sufficient to prevent the wheels from coming off. In other words, they can’t take the hit.

Every PGA and LPGA golfer suffers from this, except Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam. Tiger and Annika are not just winners — they are champions. When they run into some bad holes, they reach inside themselves and instead of coming up empty, as occasional winners do, they discover they have something known as “heart.” This causes them to pause, refocus, become determined and then execute. Pressure and adversity cause them to play a different and better game.

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Wayne Gretzky was once asked what it was like to be in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup, in overtime with thirty seconds left, and realizing that the puck was going to be passed to him. He flashed that great smile of his and replied: “That’s what I live the whole season for.”

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