- Clarify a vision. Mandela’s dedication to the African people and the ideal of a free and democratic society where all people would live in harmony kept hope alive for the South African people. It also kept Mandela’s own hope alive during his years of unjust confinement. Hope is not a guarantee of a desired outcome, but a deep and sustaining confidence that our contribution will make a difference – regardless of the outcome. What is your personal vision that inspires hope?
- Open your hearts. Divisiveness, exclusion, and dissention have been a part of the places where we live and work the past two+ years. Vaccine mandates, corporate policies, religious views, and political opinions have divided families and workplaces like nothing I have experienced in my lifetime. Ask yourself who in your world needs to be listened to, heard, and truly understood. Where might apologies be needed? It’s not agreement but respect, understanding, and compassion that is required. It’s naïve to think that we can just return to work and personal relationships, and everything will be back to normal. Healing from the impact of the pandemic will take time, patience, and much caring from everyone.
- Let go of bitterness. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” said Nelson Mandela, “I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Forgiveness is not some bleeding-heart, Sunday school platitude. Forgiveness is having the courage to honestly face the emotions that come from being unjustly injured and then letting go of the right to be resentful. It takes maturity to be able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. Forgiveness does not abdicate the importance of justice; rather it removes revenge from the justice process. Forgiveness transforms vengeance into freedom. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
We all have the ability to choose how we react in our circumstances and given the situations we now find ourselves in, it is helpful to fortify ourselves so we choose wisely. I offer some suggestions to strengthen your mental toughness to help you thrive through these challenging times.
For the past eighteen months through the weariness of COVID, I have been inspired by studying the lives of those who stayed strong and compassionate through the hard times. An impressive example and role model is Nelson Mandela. The longest stretch of Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison was his eighteen years on Robben Island where he endured harsh conditions in a cell block constructed for political prisoners. Each prisoner had a single seven-foot square cell with a slop bucket, around a concrete courtyard. They were allowed no reading materials and worked crushing stones with a hammer to make gravel in a blindingly bright limestone quarry. He endured and emerged to be one of this century’s most influential leaders.
In addition to being inspired by such stories, I’ve gained strength by becoming a more thoughtful observer of my own life through this journey. Here are six lessons I have learned about mental toughness in an age of comfort and entitlement.
1) Start with a compelling vision. When my father agreed to be my track coach in high school the first thing we did was establish an inspiring goal. As a former nationally ranked gymnast, he could see I didn’t have Olympic talent. But that didn’t stop him from challenging me to have a dream of making the Canadian Olympic team. He would say, “the purpose of having a dream is not to achieve your dream; it’s to inspire you to become the kind of person it takes to achieve your dream.” A compelling vision gives you a reason to have mental toughness. I didn’t get out of bed at 5:00 am to run ten miles in a freezing snowstorm. I got out of bed at 5:00 to prepare for the Olympics. What is your compelling vision?
2) Embrace the grind. When I look back over my sixty-five years, I recognize that the hardest and most frustrating times in my life were also the most formative. Challenges in life are unavoidable. If we help our children accept difficulty as a part of life and instead of making it easier for them, support them through it, they have a greater chance of success as adults. Children who learn to handle their own problems are also the ones who are more apt to thrive as adults. The Chinese saying, “Chi Ku Shi Fu” (eating bitterness is good fortune) highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth amid misfortune. While we don’t have control over the situations that life will bring to us, we do have a choice of how we react to them. Life is tough. When you can accept and embrace that fact, life is no longer quite so difficult. The 40% rule, first coined by David Goggins, explains that when your mind and body are starting to tire and you feel like giving up, you’re only at forty percent of what you are truly capable of achieving. My dad said it this way: “Don’t pray for the world to get easier; pray instead for the you to get stronger, and then get to work.”
3) Be in it for the long game. Twenty-seven years in prison teaches you many things, but one of the lessons is to play the long game. According to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela was impatient as a young man. He wanted change yesterday. Prison taught him to slow down, and it reinforced his sense that haste often leads to error and misjudgement. Above all, he learned how to postpone gratification. Many of us are used to the opposite. Because of our aversion to discomfort, we confuse instant gratification with expressing ourselves. Getting through this pandemic with mental toughness means letting go of our need for immediate relief and trusting – with a firm resolve – that we will come through this – and we’ll be better for it.
4) Find your hidden power by focusing on what you can control. Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, walked with a limp as the result of years of being chained up as a slave. Great thinkers like him knew that the only thing you ever really have control over are your deliberate thoughts. You can’t control other people, you can’t control your situation, and you can’t always control your own body. So, the only thing you do have control over is your emotions, thoughts, and behavior—the essence of mental toughness. A hidden power from within is harnessed when we spend our time on things over which we have complete control: goals, values, and what we do with our thoughts.
5) Keep your heart open. Mental toughness isn’t the same as cold, callous grit. Mental toughness is more like tender courage. It’s realizing that it’s not determination but acceptance that demonstrates strength: letting go of the resistance and the war. And it means finding ways to express kindness at every opportunity. An entrepreneur with anxiety and depression whose business has taken a hit through the pandemic called me last week in an entirely different mood. He was confident and inspired and told me how one morning that week an elderly stranger pulled up beside him and asked for directions. After he found the directions on Google Maps and tried to explain to the stranger how to arrive at his destination, he could tell how confused this poor man was. So, my client then had him follow him as he drove there. This simple act of kindness made his whole day. It’s kindness – not cruelty – that’s going to get us through this.
6) Plant a garden. Even on a remote island, Nelson Mandela needed a place where he could be with himself and find strength. The early days on Robben Island were bleak. The wardens were coarse and abusive. The work was backbreaking. Prisoners were permitted only one visitor and a single letter every six months. So, Mandela decided to plant a garden. In his autobiography, he goes to great length to talk about the meaning it had for him to go through the arduous work of creating a garden amid the obstacles of a prison system, and then carefully nurturing it. It was not a place of retreat but of renewal. “Each of us,” he later explained, “needs something away from the world that gives us pleasure and satisfaction, a place apart… You must find your own garden.”
If you are interested in getting more of my perspective on living through this pandemic with greater mental strength, please join me for my complimentary webinar on Tuesday, October 26th:
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” – The Christophers
When Nelson Mandela died a few years ago, many leaders around the globe commented that, “a great light has gone out of the world.” Mandela was called a “guiding light in a world rife in darkness” who transformed his country and inspired so many people around the globe.
Nelson Mandela taught us that what leaders do is bring light to the world. Leaders inspire others, not through their position, but through the brightness of their presence. During the dark times of our lives we are reminded to have the clarity and the courage to bring light to those we love and serve. Lighting the world of darkness is a vital aspect of leadership.
As a leader, how can you bring ‘enlightenment’ to the world? How can your presence impact and inspire others more fully? Below is some of what I learned from studying the life of Nelson Mandela, the remarkable leader who inspired the world by being who he was.
- Embrace Adversity. Great leaders, leaders with strong character, find a special attractiveness in difficulty since it is only by coming to grips with adversity that you can realize your potential. Leaders who are open to learn, especially in the midst of adversity, are inspiring. Nelson Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was the dark years of Robben Island. “Prison,” he once said, “taught me self-control, discipline, and focus – the things I consider to be essential to leadership – and it taught me how to be a full human being.” Rather than destroying him, prison matured him, made him a better person, and molded him into the leader he became.
- Courage. Courage inspires. But Nelson Mandala taught, through his actions and his life, that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and learning to overcome it.
- Integrity. We admired Nelson Mandela, in no small part, because of his integrity – the integrated way he led his life. His leadership, and others who emulate this quality of moral authority, inspires others through self-leadership. Self-leadership involves introspective journeys. This inward journey is not always easy. Consider the admission attributed to Mandela: “My greatest enemy was not those who put or kept me in prison. It was myself. I was afraid to be who I am.”
- Forgiveness. After twenty-seven years of being unjustly imprisoned, resentment and bitterness would surely be an understandable response. But instead, Nelson Mandela took the courageous road of forgiveness. It is easy to forgive someone for something done inadvertently, but how do you let go of the past when an enemy has intentionally done you serious harm? Mandela found a way, and in that way, he earned both respect and credibility by choosing reconciliation over retribution.
- Service. You cannot lead others if you can’t lead yourself. But you also can’t lead others if you use power chiefly to serve yourself and your ego. Leadership is not about you. It’s about those you love and serve: your family, your community, your colleagues, your customers, your country. Great leaders see beyond themselves. They are compelled to transcend themselves and serve a purpose greater than self-interest.
- Civility. Not enough can be said for the simple, yet powerful effect of consideration and respect for ourselves and others. Leaders have an opportunity – and responsibility – to bring civility to their life and work through simple acts of kindness: a smile of support, a word of encouragement, or a sincere expression of gratitude. Civility can be practiced anywhere at any time: to a colleague, a family member, or a store clerk. Civility, including good manners, calmness in the midst of madness, and poise under pressure, is a common-sense leadership approach that is not so common these days.
- Renewal. The early years of prison for Nelson Mandela were bleak and trying. The wardens were abusive. The work was back-breaking. The prisoners were permitted only one visitor and one letter every six months. During this time, his oldest son was killed in a car crash. Winnie was in danger. The ANC was in exile. And the apartheid government had consolidated its power. What did Nelson Mandela do to find solace amid all the strife? He planted and cared for a garden. According to Richard Stengel, the author who helped write Mandela’s autobiography, “Nelson’s life was in service to others, and the garden was a respite from the turmoil and storms of the world. In that way, it helped him do his main work. It was not a place of retreat but of renewal.” In the arduous work of leadership, we all need something away from the world that gives us satisfaction and sanctuary, a place apart. “Each of us,” said Mandela, “must find our own garden.” Bringing a light to the world means recharging our minds, refueling our health, and replenishing and renewing our spirits – in the midst of the pressures and demands of the world.
May we each set aside time to reflect upon own unique, authentic ways to rekindle our own inner light and bring that light more brightly to the world that we lead and influence. The world needs, and wants, our gifts.