Mental Habits of Long Game Leaders

“The quality of your mind determines the quality of your life.” Author, neuroscientist, meditation teacher Sam Harris.

If we’ve learned one thing through this last year, it is that leadership and life require what sports psychologists call, a strong mental game. But what does that mean, really? Is it something you are born with or is it something you can cultivate?

In 15 years of coaching leaders, I’ve observed in clients and colleagues a set of common mental habits or mindsets that seem to support their ability to weather unpredictable challenges like the ones we are facing now. With advances in brain imaging technology and new studies into the science of well-being, there is a growing body of research that offers deeper insight into what contributes to a stronger, healthier mind.

Can we build happier, more resilient minds?

The degree to which we can influence our mental well-being is still being debated and researched. This is a central question in the field of positive psychology. We seem to have inherited predispositions that make a significant contribution to our subjective sense of well-being. Some researchers suggest that our genes can account for 50% or more of our overall sense of well-being. Our circumstances seem to account for a surprisingly small proportion, some experts suggesting as little as 10%. While estimates of our ability to influence or improve our sense of well-being through deliberate action and practice range from a low of 15% to a high of 40%.

Coaches work with you to cultivate that part that is within your ability to influence through heightening your self-awareness, your consciousness, your ability to shift perspective and by supporting you to incorporate practices known to promote well-being. In the same way that physical exercise supports you to cultivate strength, flexibility and aerobic conditioning; mental practices and perspectives can support you to develop the mind habits of a strong mental game.

Below are eight mind habits or mindsets that contribute to the leadership long game.

Mind Habit 1: A healthy relationship with reality

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

Accompanying beliefs: Long-game leaders don’t believe their own propaganda and stay rigorous about how their personal biases and assumptions may steer them in the wrong direction. They want bad news early and are not afraid of it because of a foundational belief in their personal and collective resourcefulness. They confront problems and challenges rather than avoid them.

How it builds the long game: If we’ve learned nothing else from this pandemic, it is the enormous cost of leaders who do not face facts or tell the truth.

Facing hard facts while cultivating a belief in your own resourcefulness and that of the people you lead, create the ground conditions for a meaningful, appropriate and early response, either preventing bad news from getting much worse or developing responses that support recovery.

Mind Habit 2: A sense of personal agency

This is a conviction that you have a measure of choice and control over your own destiny.

Accompanying beliefs: These leaders believe no matter what their circumstances, they have a measure of choice, if not to change their circumstances, at least to choose their perspective and their response. They rarely see themselves as victims of circumstance and have a deep trust of their own judgment and resourcefulness. Frequently observed in research into the stages of adult development, this higher-stage capacity sometimes referred to as “self-authored” has been strongly correlated to leadership effectiveness.

How it builds the long game: Leaders with a strong sense of personal agency search for creative solutions to problems and believe in both their own personal capacity and the capacity of collective action to affect change. They tend to have a healthy relationship to control – being able to discern between what is within their control and what is not and choosing to act on the former, while having the humility to accept the latter.

Mind Habit 3: A growth mindset

The growth mindset was first coined and studied by psychologist Carol Dweck in her research with young children. A growth mindset is a set of beliefs that govern, among other things, how we see ourselves and how we respond to challenge.

Accompanying beliefs: Contrasted with what Dweck calls “a fixed mindset”, in which people believe their talents and abilities are fixed, leaders with a growth mindset believe we are all works-in-progress and we have the capacity, with effort, to continuously improve and respond effectively to setbacks.

How it builds the long game: Dweck’s research found that people with a growth mindset embrace challenge, persist in the face of challenge and treat failure as an opportunity to learn, all essential skills for long game leadership.

It turns out that leaders with a growth mindset have science on their side. Neuroplasticity refers to physiological changes in the brain that occur throughout our lifetime as result of our interactions with our environment and our changing needs. According to Courtney Ackerman in her article What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains, “A person with a growth mindset believes that he or she can get smarter, better, or more skilled at something through sustained effort—which is exactly what neuroplasticity tells us. You might say that a growth mindset is simply accepting the idea of neuroplasticity on a broad level!”

Mind Habit 4: An essentialist mindset

The book I recommend most often to my clients, is Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. McKeown describes the mindset of leaders who are able to strip away the unimportant and peripheral, to act on what matters most.

Accompanying beliefs: According to McKeown, these leaders believe that very little is essential. They are clear about what matters most. They believe that the quality of their lives is enhanced by being discerning and disciplined about what they say yes to and what they say no to and that part of that discipline is the willingness to make trade-offs. They say no to much more than they say yes to and, as a result, are practiced and adept at saying no.

In a 2017 PBS interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, arguably the poster boy for Long Game Leadership, the interviewer asked Gates what he had learned from being associated with Buffett. Among other things, Gates talked about Buffet’s calendar. “He has days… where there’s nothing on it.”

With that, Buffet produced a small tattered book and the interviewer opened it to a week in April, in which the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and owner of over 60 companies, had three meetings scheduled. Buffet explained that three or four meetings a week was pretty typical for him. “People will want your time,” Buffet said. “I mean it’s the only thing you can’t buy. I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time. I better be careful with it.”

How it builds the long game: Long-game leaders take this one step further. They prioritize not only their most important goals, but those activities and practices that are enablers. They focus on the long-term consequences of their decisions and invest their time, energy and resources in things that will build capacity, better health, greater sustainability and better results over the long-term. 

Mind Habit 5: Optimism.

People often confuse optimism with wishful thinking and pessimism with realism. I have found optimism tempered with a healthy relationship with reality contributes to the long game.

Accompanying beliefs: Martin Seligman, widely regarded as the father of positive psychology, uncovered that it is the reasoning of optimists that explains their resilience.

Optimists have what Seligman calls a “different explanatory style” than pessimists. Optimists tend to view negative situations or setbacks as temporary, not their fault, not as pervasive. Pessimists, on the other hand, believe setbacks are more permanent, more wide reaching and pervasive and they have a greater tendency to blame themselves.

How it builds the long game: Because of this reasoning, research shows that leaders with an orientation to optimism are more persistent in the face of obstacles and have a greater ability to bounce back after setbacks. Studies show that optimistic people are generally more productive, achieve more and are healthier.

Mind Habit 6: Kindness. 

It may seem odd to think about kindness as a mental habit or orientation. Kindness has become a new fascination of psychologists and researchers, including neuroscientists. Scientists like to parse words like kindness, empathy and compassion for the purpose of study and in this case use the phrase “compassion empathy”, which is the capacity to feel empathy for another’s situation while feeling inspired to help. It includes both the feeling and the gesture.

Accompanying beliefs: These leaders believe that how you treat the people you lead matters. Empathy and compassion are not just “nice to’s”, they are actually essential ingredients to both effective leadership and team performance. They believe that empathy is a skill that can be cultivated through practice and while some leaders see kindness as weakness, these leaders see kindness as a leadership strength.

How it builds the long game: It turns out, that acts of kindness do double duty when it comes to the leadership long game.

When a leader shows concern and compassion for a staff member who is struggling, makes a point of thanking someone for their contribution or agrees to listen when a team member is upset, this not only boosts the resilience and well-being of the recipients of this kindness; research indicates that it boosts the well-being of the leader as well.

Further, it creates an environment of mutual support and genuine connection, essential conditions for withstanding challenge and adversity in a team environment.

Mind Habit 7: Appreciation

The habit of appreciation is a larger container for three practices that research has shown have a profoundly positive impact on our sense of well-being and resilience – gratitude, savouring and an appreciation of impermanence.

Accompanying beliefs: People who have an orientation to appreciation see life as a gift. They tend to view both good and bad events in terms of their benefits. They tend to be more grateful generally and think in terms of life’s good fortune versus life’s burdens and deprivations. They tend to be more present to and savour life’s pleasurable experiences and they are mindful that life is short.

How this builds the long game: Appreciation and the practices that accompany it are sustaining and healing mental habits. They break, what psychologists call, our habit of hedonic adaptation, which is our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major life changes – positive or negative. This is the tendency that has us take things and people for granted. Because appreciation demands a greater present moment mindfulness, it can take you out of your “always on” stress response and into a more mindful, present-moment parasympathetic state of profound well-being. Appreciation is contagious and powerful, especially when times are tough.

Mind Habit 8: Self-Compassion

In my first article of the Long Game Leadership series, I talked about the practice of self-compassion as key to building what I called a reliable home base. According to researcher, Kristen Neff, who has devoted her life to the study of self-compassion, “Individuals who are more self-compassionate… have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events…” The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion, by Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer. When self-compassion becomes habitual, it can be a powerful contributor to the leadership long game. Sadly, it is an orientation that is exceedingly rare among the leaders I see.

Many people confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence or self-pity, habitual thought patterns that actually erode resilience. According to Neff, self-compassion has three core elements: kindness to oneself, the recognition that you are part of a common humanity where everyone makes mistakes and feels pain, and mindfulness.

Accompanying beliefs: Those who are kind to themselves, believe that their worth and value are intrinsic and not dependent on their achievements or the esteem of others. They recognize that they are human and as a result are bound to make mistakes and they feel they are deserving of the same compassion they give to others. 

How it builds the long game: According to Neff and Germer, practicing self-compassion impacts networks in the brain by down-regulating the threat response (fight, flight or freeze) and activating the mammalian care system, associated with feelings of self-nurturing and soothing. Self-compassion practice also supports healthy responsive behaviours like protecting boundaries, ensuring your needs are met and motivating leaders to act mindfully and effectively.

Can we rewire for resilience?

The short answer is yes. Our understanding of the degree and how the brain rewires itself is still relatively new and growing in leaps and bounds due to a field of neuroscience known as neuroplasticity. According to writer Courtney Ackerman in, new lines of research into neuroplasticity are now “offering potential avenues for psychological change.”

Each of these habits of mind can be learned, cultivated and grown over time through deliberate and mindful practice. Each is grounded in a set of beliefs or perspectives about what it means to be human and what it means to lead. In my next article in the Leadership Long Game series, I will explore “the practice” of The Leadership Long game.

This is the third in a series of articles on The Leadership Long game. You can find the first two, How to build your Leadership Long Game and First aid for the Leadership Long Game at the Fire Inside blog or by visiting my LinkedIn Profile.

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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

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