Leadership & Mental Toughness

Mental toughness has been getting a lot of press lately in terms of its importance in relation to leadership – some of the press has been positive and some negative.

Mental toughness often seems to be portrayed as something very masculine and all about having steely nerves, cold-blooded calm and the emotions of plankton during the mating season!

So, is mental toughness a “good thing”? Should we have it? How much do we need? Is too much a bad thing? Here’s my take on the subject.

I first became interested in mental toughness about 10 years ago when I was having a major revisit of my leadership thinking; in fact, I became so interested in the subject that I became an accredited user of a mental toughness questionnaire (the MTQ48) and have been using it in my leadership development activities ever since.

There seems to be no commonly accepted definition of mental toughness in psychological terms; so a starting point to understand it could be to look at the “scientific” definition. Scientifically toughness is defined as the measure of the strength of a material to withstand stress and other conditions without breaking; interestingly resilience (often used in conjunction with mental toughness) is defined as the elasticity of a material – the capacity of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed.

It would seem that in psychological terms we are talking about something that (assuming we have it) will help us to face up to and “better manage” difficult and/or stressful situations – it sounds like a good thing to have.

Although there is no commonly accepted definition of mental toughness here’s what some of the mental toughness “experts” have to say about the matter:

  • According to Vince Lombardi the famous American football coach, “Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’”
  • Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute defines mental toughness as: “the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”
  • In his 1998 book “Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness”, Daniel Teitelbaum defines mental toughness as “the ability to keep picking yourself up no matter what life hits you with – to keep marching steadily forward to achieve the specific victories you have made up your mind you are going to make happen.”
  • David Yukelson, PhD., Sport Psychologist at Penn State University defines mental toughness as “being able to reframe negative thinking…and look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement.”
  • Professor Peter Clough of the Manchester Metropolitan University defines Mental Toughness as “a quality which determines, in some part, how effectively individuals perform when exposed to stressors, pressure, and challenge …. irrespective of the prevailing situation

So, what exactly are the ingredients of mental toughness and, maybe more importantly, can they be developed? Again, there is no common agreement as to the “elements”, “competences”, “factors”, “components”, etc. that make up mental toughness; however, we (at least I am) are starting to see a certain convergence in thinking.

Some of the earliest research related to mental toughness was carried out in the mid-fifties by Julian B. Rotter and his work in on “Locus of control” (a person’s belief that their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence or by chance or fate). In the late seventies, Suzanne C. Kobasa was a major contributor when she was looking in to “hardiness” and the personality characteristics that distinguished managers and executives who remained healthy under life stress, as compared to those who developed health problems; she identified the elements of challenge, commitment, and control as major contributing factors.

Yulkeson in his work identified self-belief, motivation, focus, and composure as key psychological characteristics associated with mentally tough elite athletes.

  1. Fourie & J.R. Potgieter writing on the nature of mental toughness in sport in the South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation identified 12 components of mental toughness; these included (amongst others) coping skills, confidence maintenance, goal-directedness, competitiveness, and psychological hardiness.

Peter Clough’s work, when he was at the University of Hull, identified confidence as a contributing factor to mental toughness.


Bob Larcher
Bob Larcher
Bob Larcher is an independent leadership development consultant; he has been designing & delivering personal, team & leadership development programs for almost 35 years, both in English and in French and his clients include Blue Chip corporate giants, Charities, Start-ups, and the Public Sector. Bob is also a visiting lecturer at several French Business Schools. Since his first leadership seminar in 1986, Bob has designed and delivered in excess of 3000 days of training & coaching. His background is in Outdoor Management Development and he was previously a shareholder of a major player in the UK market; he is an Accredited Practitioner of the UK Institute of Outdoor Learning and a member of the panel reviewing articles for their journal, “Horizons”. He is based in Toulouse in France but works all over Europe. Bob is an accredited Insights Discovery Personal Profile user, an accredited Integrated Leadership Measure user and a Master Trainer in Mental Toughness. He also designs customized 360° leadership & management evaluations Bob is passionate about helping people to discover, develop and deploy their leadership capacity in order to enable them to drive the personal, organizational and societal transformations they are involved in.

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  1. Well stated, Bob. As I was reading your piece, I was waiting for “but I do have an inkling that there are limits; thinking that we can take on the world and win every time.” One of the assessments I use in my coaching practice measures and predicts sixteen leadership qualities, “persistence” being one of them. Again as you say, persistence “and mental toughness are obviously not the same thing but they are at the same time not completely different.” To wit: mental toughness allows one to persist. But like everything else, too much persistence may be an unwelcome behavior in some situations. For example: A leader has to know when to pull the plug on a strategy that isn’t achieving desired results. A leader has to know when to step back and evaluate a change effort that seems to be going nowhere. A leader has to release an underperforming staff member who doesn’t respond to coaching and training.

    • Persistence, determination and focus are clearly important, sometimes people can become blinkered, stubborn and impatient

  2. Your article is excellent, Bob. I agree with your 4 C’s and would add that to embody mental toughness in leadership a possible fifth “C” could be weaved into your list. I feel from my own experience leading teams that having “caring” in the lines of keeping the work and the people in mind while having your own boundaries and self-knowledge is another factor to ponder.

    • Thanks for the feedback Maureen

      Caring could indeed be an interesting “fitfh C” – it’s certainly important in terms of leadership