Lead with Toughness and Tenderness

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Have you ever found yourself working your butt off and not accomplishing what you want? Revenue growth is slower than you would like. Clients and customers are not closing deals fast enough. New products are slow in the making. Bonuses look slimmer than last year. How do you make sense of all this? Shouldn’t there be a direct link between how hard you work and your performance and rewards?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work that way. Uncertainty is the new normal. We can help to shape our futures, but we can’t always control the outcomes. That’s where timing, mystery, chance, luck and circumstance take over. This human dilemma calls up the ultimate paradox in our lives:

Our need for mental toughness AND mental tenderness – at the same time.

Let’s talk first about mental toughness. Many people think this is the heart of success. The CEO who fights a shareholder activist trying to steal and plunder her company. A quarterback driving down the field in the last sixty seconds for a game-winning touchdown. A single parent who has two jobs while raising three kids. These are examples of real mental toughness. But we all have to develop this quality to succeed in this rough and tumble world. I find that there are two qualities essential to developing mental toughness these days.

The discipline to stay the course – In the face of inevitable losses, unmet hopes, slow opportunities, and rejections it’s critical that we not get hijacked by these ugly realities of business and life. This is where we must reach deep inside to tap into our confidence, courage, commitment and resilience. It may be stormy outside today but tomorrow is another day.
The willingness to course correct – Why is it so hard to change course when we have invested a lot of time, money and ego in a certain direction? Because it hurts. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that our strategy may not be working. Living and leading in a world of denial and complacency will only get worse. As one leader told me, a dying fish never smells better Monday morning.

But toughness alone is just half of the battle. The other half is counterintuitive but critical to thriving in difficult or disheartening times. That requires the power of mental tenderness. HUH?! You’re telling me to be vulnerable and tender when times get tough? Absolutely. It’s the secret to finding your way through the maze of uncertain challenges. There are two critical qualities that come to mind for developing mental tenderness.

The power of good enough – When times are tough many of us have a little voice inside that starts to gnaw at us. We start deep, anxious conversations asking what have we done wrong, what happens if this doesn’t change, what could I have done better, am I less than other people, and am I letting people down? Rather than beat yourself up, you might consider being gentle with yourself. That doesn’t mean ignoring the questionable performance. It just means you are ‘good enough’ just the way you are as a human being.

Cultivating tenderness on your team – Did you ever notice what happens sometimes when business gets tough? People put on the helmet and armor, they dig moats around themselves and go into protection mode. We naturally look for scapegoats, become feisty with our colleagues and turn the arrows inside the fort. This is exactly the wrong behavior for a healthy team. Rather, this should be the exact time to recommit to your higher purpose, show mutual respect, engage in courageous conversations and be generous with each other.

Mental toughness and mental tenderness are two sides of the same coin. Don’t leave home without it.


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