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Optimizing Mental Fitness as a Leader

Whether you’re leading a country, army organization, department, small team or your family, we need to mentally feel our best to help lead the team to the best of our ability. Yet often leaders put their own Mental Fitness last. Here’s why that might not be the best solution.

We often hear about how “resilience” and “mental toughness” are important for team leaders and managers. Is that really true? And if it is, how do you improve your mental strength to benefit your team?

First of all, we’ve defined exactly what Mental Fitness is in previous blogs, so if this term is new to you and you want to learn more, check out this article

Now we need to understand whether better mental fitness makes you a better leader. This comes down to the premise that teams are made up of individual humans, and that at the end of the day we all perform better in personal and professional capacities, if we are feeling our best.

A core part of Mental Fitness comes down to stress and our ability to cope with stress on a day-to-day basis. Stress comes in many different forms and can come from our personal life just as much as from our work life.

Again, we’ve covered the impact of stress on performance in another blog which you can find here but ultimately research (and personal experience) shows that we do better in work when we are operating at optimal stress-levels.

This means that stress is high enough to motivate us, but not so high that it starts to impact our cognition. So assuming your personal performance impacts your success as a leader, this is a pretty clear indication that Mental Fitness is important in successful leadership.

The second key reason is that how you lead others has an impact on them and their performance. If you are highly stressed, however good you think you are at hiding it, it’s likely that you’ll impart at least some of that stress to your team and those around you – we’ve all seen what it’s like to even be near somebody that’s rushing around and flustered, it makes you feel a bit flustered too! So you can end up increasing the stress inputs to the people you’re working with.

Equally, team leaders and managers are the ones responsible for the flow of work to the team. You set the goals and expectations of those in your organization and you are often the one giving them regular feedback (both formal and informal).

So how you are acting and feeling will naturally flow through to those that you’re setting work for. It’s not only in the literal sense; if you have a lot on your plate, you’re likely to need your team to take on more responsibility. But also, in subtler ways; you don’t have time to explain a project fully to an employee, so they feel even more stressed in taking on that project from you. The stress then becomes amplified.

Finally, as a leader, you are the one that sets the culture for your team. Culture has a huge impact on how a team performs and feels in the workplace. A successful culture is defined by Michigan State University as that which can be characterized “as an environment marked by the shared belief that the organization can move forward most effectively when collaboration and cooperation are at the heart of thinking, planning and decision making.”

Numerous studies have found that culture and performance are very closely related. In April 2015 an edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior specifically looked at whether it is culture that results in performance, or the other way round.

In this study, researchers used the Denison Organizational Culture Survey (DOCS), to assess four primary cultural traits (involvement, consistency, adaptability, and mission ) across 95 organizations. At the same time, on a quarterly basis they assessed customer satisfaction and the new sales as a measurement of performance.

The results showed that culture does lead to improved performance both in customer satisfaction as well as sales. The researchers write, "Overall, department culture was found to consistently predict higher subsequent levels of customer satisfaction ratings and vehicle sales, with no evidence obtained for a reciprocal performance-to-culture feedback loop. In addition, the positive effect of culture on vehicle sales was mediated by customer satisfaction."

So why does mental fitness make you a better leader? Feeling strong and at your best in your own mind helps you show empathy, which facilitates connection to those around you. Strength of mind means that you are more resilient to stressors and that can help you to be consistent and keep showing up and working hard on a regular basis.

This then sets an example to your team and prevents disruption to the team. Finally, when you are feeling your best, you are better able to understand and act on the reactions of others. It improves your emotional intelligence which is the ability to understand and manage yours and others emotions. This helps you to manage difficult situations and get the most out of your team in all circumstances.

OK so we’re all in agreement that Mental Fitness is good for you as a leader. So how do we go about improving our Mental Fitness. Well the good news is that there’s loads of different ways to improve it. The not-so-great news is that it can be different for everyone – so it’s not as straightforward as doing “X” and “Y” and your Mental Fitness will get a boost. Nevertheless, there are some simple things we can all do that might help:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep: Sleep lays the foundation for all aspects of Mental Fitness. So ensuring you give your brain enough rest and time to reset is vital to all aspects of performance as a leader. We all need different amounts of sleep but most of us don’t get enough. Check out these Sleep Tips that Actually Work

  • Stress relief: ensuring you regularly get time to relax will help you manage your own stress better, which means you’re less likely to pass it onto your team. So retrain your brain to see relaxation time not as a self-indulgent activity, but rather a key activity you need to do on a regular basis to serve your team better as a leader

  • Exercise: exercise is the single most universal stress reliever. It helps to manage stress and in overall work performance. Find some sort of exercise that you enjoy and schedule regular time for it. You don’t need to run a marathon every week, but a daily 10-minute walk outdoors will boost your Mental Fitness

  • Regular 121s: scheduling regular one-on-one meetings with each member of your team which is not only about work, but focused on other aspects of their life and what is keeping them up at night. This helps you know your team better and it helps your team to trust you more so that they can open up about potential stressors or broader mental health concerns

  • Practice Vulnerable Leadership: a vulnerable leader is someone who does not feel compelled to be the first to answer or come up with an idea. This involves a change in mindset that enables you to see through the eyes of the people you lead, rather than purely through your own lens

  • Practice Empathetic Leadership: Empathetic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on identifying with others and understanding their point of view. Take some time to really pay attention to members of your team and attempt to understand what makes them tick, what inspires them and what worries them

  • Listen more: We can all do with listening more and talking less, take the time to really listen to your team so that you can better understand them and are able to better adapt your style to get the most out of them

  • Accept and learn how to handle failure: failure is a core part of learning, creativity and innovation. If you foster a culture that doesn’t accept failure then you may well be stifling your team's output. So try to instil an environment that accepts the odd failure might happen and uses them as learning opportunities

Ultimately, you need to give yourself downtime and relaxation to unwind. This is the best way to keep your brain rested and optimal to perform when needed. As a leader it is your responsibility to set a good example to your team. So, start by giving your brain regular rest and see how the boost in calm, focus and energy result in better leadership and results for the team!

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