During a recent gathering of my organization’s board, we spent some time touring the U.S. Navy SEAL training facility in Coronado, California.

If you have ever been privileged to meet any SEALs, you will probably agree that, beyond their status as elite, highly trained military personnel, they are exemplary individuals in virtually every way — from intelligence and fitness to courage and humility. It’s not an accident. To become a SEAL, you have to endure training that pushes you to the absolute limit of human endurance.

Because training a SEAL requires a very significant investment of both time and tax dollars, the Navy doesn’t want to accept people who aren’t a good fit. It’s looking for 2 qualities in particular that all successful SEALs have — perseverance and an ability to work with a team.

How do they find out who has both attributes? Just 3 weeks into a 24-week training program, all candidates go though “Hell Week.” During this incredibly grueling test, candidates sleep no more than 4 hours total and do intensive physical training for 20 hours a day, including running more than 200 miles.

To drop out, you walk up to a ship’s bell on the beach and ring it 3 times. Two-thirds of the candidates do. The ones who make it through Hell Week are almost never the most gifted athletes or the most impressive physical specimens. The last ones standing, however, do have something truly rare — extreme mental toughness.

In my previous column, I wrote about the strong links — supported by our research — between physical fitness and leadership effectiveness. Several commenters noted that it’s not enough merely to be in shape if you want to lead well. You also must have the mental and emotional perseverance to make it through challenging times.

They’re right, of course, and I appreciated the feedback. We need leaders who model perseverance at every level of our organizations, and we need to model it ourselves as well. Most of us are not heading into combat zones like the SEALs, but these warriors can inspire us to demand more of ourselves, to push ourselves harder, and to stretch further.

We don’t need to put ourselves through Hell Week to do that, but there are several concrete steps we can and should take now to increase our perseverance.

First, read biographies. They will elevate your perspective in many ways. It’s easy to look at successful people such as Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Steve Jobs and assume everything came easily to them. But when you study their lives, you see not only that they had to grapple with hard times but also that those very experiences gave them the mental resources and habits they needed to lead at a high level.

Lincoln was raised in a poor family and had to educate himself. Roosevelt battled blatant sexism. And Jobs was forced out of the company he founded. Each of these leaders demonstrated an ability to withstand adversity and to move forward in the face of frustration. Be sure to read one good biography this summer.

Second, build a strong support community. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jobs didn’t succeed entirely on their own. At crucial junctures, there were family, friends, teachers, and colleagues who offered the encouragement, wisdom, and resources to keep going, whose shoulders they stood on as they climbed to the top. It takes resilience and composure to manage the full range of negative emotions that often surface when facing difficult challenges. Have you surrounded yourself with a support team? And, just as importantly, on whose support team are you serving?

Third, look for and accept challenges. Research about learning agility that we conducted with Columbia University reveals the great value of intentionally putting ourselves in challenging circumstances and staying open to learning in these situations without becoming defensive. I’m a firm believer that we always need to be tackling a substantive challenge in some area of our lives, whether it’s pursuing a new professional experience, making a positive change in our family life, adopting a new fitness regimen, expanding our spiritual lives, or cultivating a new hobby. These new challenges will give us the opportunity to practice being flexible in our approach and to look for new ways to reach our goal.

Fourth, stay both realistic and positive in striving to achieve individual and group goals. Optimism is the oxygen that fuels the engine of perseverance. Understand that things will go wrong, that it’s almost always harder than we thought and that it takes longer than expected. Again, you may have to change your approach or think differently as the context changes. Stay positive about your goal and stay in the ring.

Finally, reflect on the lessons we learn from our challenges. President Lincoln was able to acknowledge errors, learn from them, and move on. To paraphrase the great poet T.S. Eliot, we benefit little from having the experience but missing the meaning. The meaning can only be identified when we reserve time to sit down with a journal or go on a run or talk with a colleague, spouse, or friend and ask ourselves, “What went well? What could have gone better — and why? What will I do differently from now on because of this experience?”

There’s nothing revolutionary about these 5 steps. But investing time in each of them can strengthen our mental toughness and build our leadership endurance. There’s really no time to waste. Because there’s always this certainty in life and leadership — the next test of our perseverance is never too far away.

This article is part of CCL President & CEO John R. Ryan’s regular LinkedIn Influencer Column.

One thought on “Mental Toughness and Perseverance: Not Just for Navy SEALs

  1. The last quitter is the winner. Easy victories are like cookies… they good but they won’t keep you going. Great article

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