Last Updated 2 years by Emily Standley-Allard

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. Here’s how improving your mental fitness can boost productivity and success in your life. 

by Jody Michael

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.

When you’re triggered, your leadership performance suffers because your brain is running an internal script rather than clearly assessing and optimally responding to whatever is actually happening.

It’s like endlessly repeating a playlist of your favorite “oldie but goodie” tunes without ever adding new songs to your repertoire. As a result of being stuck in an old loop and interpreting the present through that lens, you are much more likely to make mistakes or poor decisions, damage your relationships, and miss key opportunities.

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TRIGGERED LEADERS CAUSE PAIN 

Many of the pain points that you, your team, and your organization repeatedly have to work through have actually been caused by leaders acting in a triggered state. And when you in turn get triggered, you also inadvertently generate pain for others and your organization. It’s a vicious cycle.

Perhaps it’s a toxic environment. Perhaps there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Perhaps you feel stressed or overwhelmed, and those around you do too, compounding your own sense of pressure. Perhaps you can’t get your job done properly because communication is poor, or relationships are lacking. Maybe you have to work with one of those notoriously “difficult people” who’s a real fly in the ointment.

With mental fitness, you can keep yourself out of these unproductive emotional states so that you are leading, as much as possible, from a position of optimal performance—so you can lead lightly.

You do this by very rapidly applying a set of learned skills and choices—the five “muscles” of mental fitness—to change your perceptions and internal reactions:

1. Choose Personal Accountability
2. Choose Helpful Beliefs over Impeding Beliefs

3. Accurately Self-Assess Your Internal State
4. Hold Multiple, Disparate Perspectives
5. Modulate Your Own Physiology

As you apply these five muscles, you intentionally change your perceptions and internal reactions … you seek to see yourself and your environment differently. 

You break yourself away from those reflexive, automatic reactions that limit potential and possibility in your leadership.

With practice, you’ll be able to optimize your performance and consistently create new, much better leadership results. 

 

A BIG BENEFIT: YOU WILL FEEL LIGHTER 

Leaders often feel overwhelmed and weighed down with stress. There is never enough time in the day, the week, the month. The strategy meeting is coming up, quarterly reports are due, and emails don’t stop coming in.

My message here is simple: if you develop your five muscles of mental fitness you are going to feel lighter. You will feel more in control. You will lead yourself and others lightly.

Many of the negative interactions, feelings, and emotions you are currently experiencing will soften and eventually go away. Rather than getting triggered, you won’t take things personally; you’ll counter challenges with adaptability and curiosity rather than defensiveness.

 

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A PROVEN APPROACH TO IMPROVING MENTAL FITNESS 

It’s normal to believe that everything around you—circumstances, events, and other people—create the conditions for your leadership performance. For example, you thrive in the “right” environment. You’re miserable in a “toxic” environment, and your hands are tied when your direct reports “just don’t get it.”

With mental fitness, you let go of the impeding belief that everything and everyone else is the main problem. You come to your leadership role with a different mindset, deeply understanding that when you want different results—for yourself, team, or organization—you have to make changes at the root. That means that change begins with you.

[Developing a high level of mental fitness] is a radically different approach to creating and sustaining high leadership performance— as well as personal well-being—especially when the conditions around you are challenging or even painful. Over time, and with practice, this method will lead to you to fundamentally change who you are at your core.

This is not just theory. In all my years working in and with corporate America, I’ve observed a lot of pain—or, if you prefer, you could say I’ve seen an acute level of stress and pressure. …

I have had an especially close look at the interpersonal and organizational dynamics of these pain points during my past twenty-plus years as an executive coach to C-level and senior leaders in fast-moving, highly competitive companies.

As a neutral and trusted third party, sworn to confidentiality, I have observed and interacted with top corporate leaders in a very unique, intimate way. These conversations have given me a real sense of the organizational pain and pain points—and their impact—brought about by different types of leaders and their leadership styles. …

This puts me in the rare position to hear, for example, three completely different perspectives, told in three vastly different emotional tones, resulting in wildly different versions of same story that is causing pain for them, their organization, or both.

 

THREE VIEWS OF “WALTER” 

Here’s a quick example. “Walter” is a C-level executive at a Fortune 200 company who is not sharing intelligence that would allow his people to do their jobs better.

One of Walter’s direct reports generally likes him and doesn’t think the information secrecy is a big deal. The employee thinks, “Walter’s busy. If he thought we needed the information, we’d get it. If we don’t, then it means we weren’t meant to have it. True, I could do my job better if I had it, but he’s the boss.” In other words, this subordinate views Walter’s actions with positive intent.

The second direct report views the blocking of information as an intentional move by Walter to control power; when Walter knows something no one else does, he is ahead of the game. This direct report thinks, “This is just what some executives do. I will do my best to ferret out the information in other ways. Sure, it wastes my time to have to do that, and it takes me away from the things I should be doing, but there isn’t much I can do about the situation.”

His third direct report also sees what is going on and feels the hoarding of data is being done with malicious intent. Her take? “Walter is blocking the information to boost his power and to impede the direct reports’ ability to do their jobs. Walter is setting us up for failure, so he can replace us with people who will be blindly loyal to him.”

The only thing these three perspectives have in common is that the executive is hurting the organization.

Other than that, they present very different views of a single executive, Walter. When I work with a team like this, I don’t question the truthfulness of each version. I understand that each person’s story represents their particular perception and perspective. But I do look at how each person created their perspective.

 

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A LACK OF MENTAL FITNESS 

Leadership pain points drastically hinder company performance. That is the unarguable conclusion I have come to after decades of working with executives. The problem is far more prevalent and impactful than shareholders and investors could ever possibly imagine. Sometimes the order of magnitude is literally billions of dollars, played out over a period of several years.

The problems … are not the normal and healthy disagreement that often occurs in discussions about corporate strategy and the like. It is about leaders who are rigid, controlling, or fearful. Leaders who are unaware, embody low emotional intelligence, and lack the capacity to see beyond their own self-interests. These damaging leaders are both unaware of what they are doing and are unable to stop it.

If one to three out of twenty top leaders in an organization (and that’s a typical number, from what I’ve observed) exhibit the kinds of detrimental behaviors listed above, then that entire group of twenty wastes time and energy dealing with the resulting pain.

This is energy that both individuals and organizations cannot afford to waste; it’s needed for building and driving the enterprise. And the waste we are talking about is not just at the top—the inefficiency, damage, and disengagement ripple out in all directions, across and down all functions of the organization.

 

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YOU ARE GOOD. MENTAL FITNESS CAN MAKE YOU GREAT!

… My executive coaching clients have shown, again and again, that developing mental fitness measurably reduces individual and organizational pain points and optimizes performance.

It also becomes much easier to create alignment and move faster. The beneficial results of all this are seen in financial metrics such as reduced or avoided operational expenses, reduced or avoided risk exposure, increased sales, and the expansion of the business through innovation in products and services. …

In fact, with well-developed mental fitness, you will ultimately find yourself creating results in both work and life that are probably far beyond your current expectations. You will feel different.

You will feel lighter. And, you and others around you will notice and feel it too.

Third-party research has shown that many of my clients [who develop mental fitness]:

• Have more energy
• Experience less stress
• Stop taking things personally
• Build emotional intelligence
• Feel more in control
• Respond to situations with agility
• Achieve results quicker and with greater ease
• Build deeper trust and stronger interpersonal relationships
• Build mindfulness and break through self-imposed limitations

For some people, increasing their mental fitness is about being the best leader they can be. For others, it is about maximizing organizational performance. And for others still, it is more akin to a personal spiritual path. The commonality in those three objectives is transformation.

As you look at the world in a new way you will stop creating pain; you will start creating performance.

You’ll breathe new life into your leadership, inspire others, and create the best possible outcomes in a world that very much needs you to be your best possible self. Let’s get that transformation underway.

 

Author Bio

Jody Michael

Jody Michael is the author of Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2022). She is CEO of Jody Michael Associates, an executive coaching, leadership development, and career coaching company. She is recognized as one of the top 4% of coaches worldwide and is an internationally credentialed Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, University of Chicago trained psychotherapist, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

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