Mental toughness: do you have what it takes?

Share this content

If you heard the words mental toughness would it conjure up a picture of someone who is super resilient, able to deal with any situation no matter how stressful and no matter how critical the decisions to resolve that situation?

If the answer is yes, or even partly yes, it would be perfectly understandable – the very word ‘toughness’, if taken in a literal sense, means robustness or hardiness.

Having attended a recent seminar, it certainly dispelled some myths for me around the topic because it isn’t just about being strong in character. From a business psychology perspective it is indeed the ability to ‘bounce back’ and have resilience (one of the foundation stones in our Organisational Base Building™ model discussed in an earlier blog:

I liked the analogy used by the speaker which was simply to ask the question ‘Are you the sort of person who would say “bring it on” or hide under the duvet...?’ This puts the notion of mental toughness into context because it has relevance for us all regardless of the type of work we do or organisation we happen to work for.

That said, it clearly also has resonance for those in a leadership role and within a framework of ‘resilient’ leadership. Are leaders expected to be superhuman? Of course, this would depend on your definition of ‘superhuman’,  but most will expect leaders to be resilient in that they have to be able to deal with the slings and arrows that any ‘business as usual’ or crisis situation throws at them – it’s part and parcel of a leadership role (which comes in many guises).

It’s also actually about a mind-set of how we respond when we’re asked to do something and relates to a personality trait which determines how people deal with challenge. Positive thinking is a component of mental toughness - someone who is low on the positive thinking scale is probably more likely to have the ‘hide under the duvet’ mindset than the ‘bring it on’. I would suspect that most of us know of or have worked with people who fit the former rather than the latter!

The model of mental toughness discussed in the seminar was that devised by Dr Peter Clough from the University of Hull. It has four components, (nicely summed up as the “four C’s”), and is the basis of the MTQ48, a psychometric tool designed to measure mental toughness.

The four “C’s”:

*  Challenge (you see opportunities rather than threats)

*  Control (your perception of self worth – this sub-sects into Life Control and Emotional Control)

*  Commitment (your tenacity or “stickability”)

*  Confidence (how you deal with adversity)

Apparently, of those who have completed the MTQ48, results show that the majority of the ‘population’ sits somewhere in the middle of the scale (not quite an 80/20 split but not very far off) with the remainder either as ‘low’ or ‘high’.  This has quite interesting implications for those in a leadership role...

Another interesting nugget which I wasn’t necessarily surprised about, (although this subject could easily take up another couple of blogs with the various research and viewpoints that exist), is that of the four “C’s”, ‘Confidence’ is the only factor where there is a gender difference: men have more confidence in their ability; women more confidence in their interpersonal skills...

The components of resilient leadership, and what most leaders need, are said to be:

*  Leadership skills

*  Mental toughness and

*  Emotional intelligence

It’s good to know that there are ways you can increase your mental toughness which I’ll explore in a future post. For now I’d like to end this blog post with a phrase that brings together the essence and underlying principle behind mental toughness because of its simplicity and power: “we are what we think...”

Would you agree?

About naheedmirza

About naheedmirza

Naheed is an experienced organisational development consultant, specialising in leadership, talent and change management. Ipso Consulting works with senior management teams helping to align leadership ability with business strategy across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.


Please login or register to join the discussion.

30th May 2013 16:36

The '4-C's' which are being presented in the article as a new development by the academic from Hull sound remarkably similar to the personality construct of Hardiness (= commitment, control, and challenge) which I researched for my doctorate degree whilst at Cranfield University in the mid-1990s. Hardiness as a personality construct has been around since the 1970's and has long been associated with stress resilience (which was the topic of my research). I do hope this academic made the roots of his work clear and gave credit where credit is due.

I think the use of terms such as 'mental toughness' and 'super-human' are really missing the point and give a potentially damaging impression of what resilience is and how we can develop it.

My research involved direct interviews with senior managers who were high in hardiness (i.e. high in the 3 C's, and if you are high in the 3 C's then confidence is actually implicit as well). 'Mental toughness' and 'super-human' are not terms that one would use to describe them, although they definitely overcome various work and non-work challenges in their lives and maintained a high work performance as well.

'Mental toughness' implies some hard-nosed, stiff upper lip, miserable existence where we plough on come what may. We may feel physically tired or in need of a break, but no, we must develop "mentally toughness" so we ignore our inner wisdom and continue on regardless. This is not resilience, this is recipe for eventual burnout. Moreover, this type of attitude really doesn't support high performance, creativity, or teamwork.

We definitely need to develop resilience to manage effectively in the modern business climate. But there are far better ways of doing it than walking around with a badge on our jacket that says "I am mentally tough".

Words have power so we need to choose the words we use with care.

Dawn Hamilton PhD



Thanks (0)

Related content