Iron Leadership: The Thinking Patterns of Leaders Who Endure

Our company’s latest global research shows that the pace of change has not let up since 2011. Still, 62 percent of respondents are involved in three or more changes at work. And there is no sign of letting up. Add to this what Bob Johansen, noted futurist and author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, said in his keynote at a recent leadership conference: "This is the age of the Corporate Athlete. People need to be physically, psychologically, and socially fit to succeed in the new volatile and complex world we live in."

I turned to endurance athletes— the kind of athletes I think Bob would agree have the attributes needed for today’s endless change. I spoke with many top endurance athletes to find out what we could learn from them about leading in a time when change is ongoing and the challenges keep coming.

I found eight thinking patterns that created Iron Leadership:

  1. The Step Effect
  2. E-Motivated
  3. Change Calluses
  4. Subliminal Override System
  5. Dynamic Leapfrogging
  6. Rebound Effect
  7. Expert Teaming
  8. Joyful Submersion

I will outline them in detail as part of a 3 part series.

1. The Step Effect

James Raaf knows something about endurance. He spent 22 days trekking to the South Pole with two teammates, Gavin Moran and Frank Runge. They were on skis and pulling 40-50kg of supplies over 800 kilometers. This was on top of another 18 days to acclimate, deal with weather changes and travel 120 kilometers through the mountains to the plateau at 3000 meters above sea level. James excelled as a top-level gymnast and competitive surfer before becoming aBiokineticist, now with 18 years of experience treating orthopedic injuries— particularly lower back disorders in stressed-out executives.

What was very clear during the race was that the "mind is the very thing that tells you to stop, not the body. Once you are dealing with these ultra-length challenges, there is enough time to use your mind to ignore time (past and future) and only deal with the present. It is in this state that one accesses true motivation. It is the place where journey is more important than the destination, beingmore value than doing."

Application: Sounds very "Zen," I know. But it is true. You need to just focus on the step you taking. And breathe. Even in change challenges. Your best bet is to face it head on, deal with the challenge in front of you, and take ‘one step at a time.’

When I work with managers, I talk about SMA during change. There is no time for SMART goals during change because there is so much to do. But there is time for SMA, Short-Term Measurable Actions. Focus yourself and your employees on SMAs that can be achieved within seven days. Getting employees to take action on small things helps them move forward, reduces stress, and helps them feel progress during a challenging time.

2. Subliminal Override System

Jeff Galloway, US Olympian, official training consultant of Run Disney Endurance Series, and Author of Mental Training for Runners: How to Stay Motivated, goes a bit further.

"The part of our brain that keeps us going, day to day, is the ancient, subconscious brain. It monitors everything that is going on in the body/mind and makes adjustments based upon millions of years of reflex behavior patterns that enabled our ancestors to survive. When the level of stress is too high, it will trigger anxiety hormones. This warns us to back off before overloading ourselves. If we keep pushing, as endurance athletes do regularly, the stress level builds and reflex brain triggers the release of negative attitude hormones which progressively lower motivation, and reduce the will to compete."

Jeff goes on, "The way to avoid this is to develop a series of mental strategies to engage the conscious brain—in the frontal lobe– to override the stress. When the stress starts to build up, have a few key mantras that will get the frontal lobe involved: "I'm in control", "I've got a plan", "I'm focused", "Hang on", "I don't give up." This stops the negative hormones, stimulates positive hormones and reprograms the ancient brain to stay on track during the stress of workouts or competition.

This approach is common for triathletes. Louis Tafuto is a 24-year-old 2016 Olympic hopeful. He was a National Champion for running in high school and is ranked seventh in the world in Sprint Distance Triathlons. When I was interviewing him, I was surprised that even he uses this system. He said, "I have to manage my thinking all the time. I am in constant pain throughout the race because I am pushing myself, so I think to myself: ‘As soon as I stop running it will all go away.’ Even during the race, I have questioned, ‘What am I doing here? Can I make it? Or sometimes it is particularly hard when you’re giving it all you have and someone passes you as if you are sitting still. So I say something like, ‘I have done this a million times in training, there is no difference, I can do it’ – banish all disbelief and shut your mind off and just go."

Paul Ryan also uses the system. He is a 56 years old Nurse, avid Triathlete, marathon runner, personal trainer and Ironman competitor. He uses daily sayings like, "At the end of pain is success" and "In a sky full of people...only some want to fly" (a Seal song).

Application: This stress sounds just like what people refer to as change fatigue in organizations. People are just too overloaded and they tend to shut down and lose their motivation to go on with more change. Jeff confirmed the viability of what I already coach clients to do. I tell them, "Write down all your negative thoughts you have about the change. You know – it won’t work, there are so many system problems, the leaders are out to lunch….now, and anytime you are stressed out about the change. Then we tell them, "Go back and check if this self-talk is true. Are you exaggerating? Are you over-generalizing? Are you making up stories in your head? If not, then you have real problems to work on. Let’s do some problem solving. For the ones that are fantasy, whenever you think them, replace them with a positive self-support statement such as: "Change takes time" , "We will get there" , or "People will support this."

Start implementing these minor tweaks into your change strategy and take note of the results you get. Stay tuned, as later this month we'll delve into "Change Calluses," "E-Motivated," and "Rebound Effect."