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Mental Toughness for Leadership Development

By Georgi Yankov and Ryne Sherman 

woman focused intently on her workDo us a favor. Go to your favorite search engine and search for the terms “grit” and “leaders.” You will get more than nine million results which right from the first page extoll the importance of grit for leaders and suggest how to develop it.

We know grit as the quality of being persevering, concentered, and passionate to achieve long-term goals. However, friends, managers, and sports coaches have probably not told you to “have more grit.” Instead, they usually ask us to stay mentally tough to succeed in times of hardship and competition.

As a concept in psychology, mental toughness has been around for more than 40 years, whereas grit originated in 2007. We believe that mental toughness, as the more personality-loaded concept, is more relevant for leadership development than grit.

First, whereas grit implies perseverance for long-term goals, mental strength has a shorter span. Thus, a person might “have” a lot of grit and passively wait out hardships, but not be mentally tough to endure an imminent and psychologically wrecking challenge.

Second, mental toughness’ major component is ambition—the desire to be more consistent and better than your opponents. In this regard, in metaphorical terms, leadership is not about having grit and surviving in a positional warfare but being mentally tough to win a series of battles that almost break you up.

But what is this mental perseverance exactly and how is it related to personality? Is it something leaders can control or develop? A few years ago, we set out to investigate this question, and recently, the journal Personality and Individual Differences published our findings. In this post, we’ll summarize the key results.

Locating mental toughness

Different scholars define mental perseverance in slightly different ways, but they all agree that it includes self-confidence, competitiveness, and emotional control. As such, our goal was not to try to determine which definition is correct, but rather to understand how the core of mental strength was related to standard personality instruments.

To do so, we had nearly 500 participants—including 90 current or former collegiate athletes—complete an assessment of mental toughness and several normal personality assessments including the HEXACO-60 and the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI). The questionnaire asked participants the degree to which they agreed with statements like “I have unshakeable confidence in my ability,” and “I am committed to completing the tasks I have to do.”

Next, we used machine learning techniques to understand if mental toughness is indeed a part of personality. To do this, we determined the degree to which we could reproduce a participant’s mental toughness score from just their scores on the personality assessments. We found that we could reproduce a participant’s mental toughness scores with a very high degree of accuracy (r = .70), showing that it is a part of personality.

Moreover, we found mental toughness is made up of several dimensions of the HEXACO model of personality: parts of extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotionality. People high on mental strength tended to endorse items related to pushing for results, having high energy levels, and having a high degree of self-confidence.

We found an even more direct link between mental strength and the HPI. Specifically, the core components of the Ambition scale (Competitive, Self-Confident, Accomplishment, and Leadership) were strongly associated with mental toughness scores.

Mental toughness is found everywhere in the world of sports, and for good reason. Scores on mental strength measures predict performance in Australian football, cricket, gymnastics, soccer, and tennis. Beyond this, it also predicts performance in non-athletic contexts.

Assessment centers showcase mental toughness

With regards to leadership development, DDI indirectly tests for mental toughness in its assessment centers for C-suite leaders. Throughout a day of realistic simulations leaders meet multiple operational and strategic challenges and have to develop, describe, and defend their solutions. But personal ambition is not enough to master our simulations—leaders need to work hard, be low in anxiety, and stay positive.

Coaching each of these personality traits occurs by empowering leaders with knowledge and skills to perform better in their work. Once leaders see themselves doing great, they will break the chains of the old patterns and self-actualize.

Essentially, by 5 p.m. on their assessment center day, leaders will know through experience and personalized coaching that they are able to resist anxiety, overcome negativity, and work efficiently. DDI has armed another ambitious leader to be tough in the face adversity.

Read about DDI’s Executive Services for building a strong team of executives, C-suite leaders, and board directors.

Georgi Yankov is a research scientist for DDI. He is passionate about personality assessment, statistics, and the moral psychology of leaders. In his free time, Georgi reads about the Italian Renaissance, architecture, and military history. He then visits the places he reads about, convinced he would make a good Indiana Jones one day.

Ryne Sherman is Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessment Systems.
Posted: 29 Aug, 2019,
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