Between Your Ears: Your Mental Game Is Everything!

06 Oct 2017. Bob Kaplan

Have you been told or seen for yourself there's something wrong with the way you lead and, like many leaders, you decided to fix it, like you'd solve any other problem, break the bad habit with your bare hands?

There's nothing wrong with this approach, a direct attack on the sub-optimal behavior. People re-condition themselves all the time—through ceaseless repetition, brute persistence. The only problem: this approach often doesn't work. The effort peters out. The bad habit wins. Nothing changes.

To improve her jump shot, a basketball player tells herself, square up, follow-through. That technique-driven approach works unless, for fear of having it blocked, she rushes her shot.

There's a world of difference between working on your form, your technique, your behavior, and working on the psychology behind that.

When I start work with someone, I like to say: "Okay, you want to raise your game. Naturally we'll look at your play on the field—and we'll also consider your mental game. Are you up for it?" They almost always are, without quite knowing what they're getting themselves into. A leader told me that he was familiar with the notion that a golfer's mental game affected his or her play but "until I saw how that idea applied to me, it wasn't tangible."

If you're skeptical, athletes at all levels are not. In sports and in leadership, your mental game is fundamental to high performance.

Elite tennis players who consistently win and those who don't differ in what happens between points, between their ears. The former players decompress, the latter stay upset if they lost the last point or they worry about the next.

If you don't want to read this whole piece, you could read the first story and one of the next three and then jump to the summary.

Ideas are one major feature of a person's mental game that may need altering.

She's actually too good to her people. An up-and-coming female executive was told by her manager that she was not direct enough or firm enough with her direct reports when their performance fell short. She knew what he meant. "Okay, I'll get right on it," she said. But despite her good intentions and genuine effort, she struggled to modify her behavior.

I was asked to talk with her. Early on I said to her, "Is anything keeping you from being direct and firm?" After a moment's thought, she came out with, "I suppose it's because I want to be good to people. I got that from my dad." 


It didn't take her long to see that being forceful in those ways didn't have to come at the expense of being good to people. The two things are "not incompatible" is the way she put it.

An open, flexible sort, she then was able to adjust, enough to satisfy her boss, and herself.

Many times a misguided idea has everything to do with what a leader values, sometimes morally, often at a very practical level. One middle manager I worked with excelled at dealing with crises. He valued his ability to put out fires, but conversely wasn't good at planning ahead. Once it was pointed out to him that his approach was reactive, it appealed him to add the word "proactive" to his vocabulary.

You won't improve on something you give short-shrift to unless you come to value it.

Needs, emotional needs, are the other major feature of someone's mental game.

I consulted to two senior leaders, both of whom were too controlling whose efforts to change had different results.

The first of two controlling leaders. This first one, though pleasant and polite, was poor at delegating, a "nano-manager," intrusive. "Do you know what's behind being so control-oriented?" I asked. No idea. Complete blank. "What was it like growing up?" I thought to ask. "Very unsettled," he said. Twice his father was out of work for a year or more. "Did that leave a legacy?" "Yes, I'm nervous, very nervous, about money. It doesn't matter how much I've saved." And that wasn't the only thing from childhood that made him nervous.

When he tried to change, his heart wasn't in it and before long he fell back into the old pattern.

The second one. This guy, earnest and visibly tense, concluded that he "forced solutions on people," not just his own staff but peers too. Again, he had no idea what was behind that. I got a clue when he mentioned his relationship with his 16 year-old son, a strong-minded sort in his own right. Sparks flew because the manager tried to make his son do things. "What drives that?" I asked. "I'm worried he won't turn out well."

"Worried, can we say anxiety?" At first he dismissed the word out of hand. Actually said, "Yuk!" But eventually he was able to use the word and grapple with the thing itself. In the end he set himself the following goal: "Control my anxiety, not other people." He held that thought and was able to make enough progress that the people around him took notice. He took the same approach with his son and a lot of the tension drained out of their relationship. (For the full story, read "Fear Is a Dirty Word.")

Why did one leader adapt and the other one did not? It may be that the leader who proved unable to change had higher anxiety that made it very hard for him to loosen his grip on his way of operating, which was his method for containing his anxiety. It may be that holding a very high position, higher than the other leader, he felt, rightly or wrongly, he could get away with not changing. In any case, grabbing your leadership flaws with both hands isn't a sure-fire solution. 

She worries too much. This senior leader needed no help in introducing herself to her anxiety. It had plagued her for years. She was too hard on herself and everyone else. This despite the fact that her career had gone really well. Despite the fact she had a good marriage, a good family, and was healthy and fit. Despite all this success in life she lacked a sense of well-being, or if she sometimes had it, it was quickly undercut by worry.

I had the enviable job of imparting extensive evidence of her high efficacy at work, not just in making the business better but in taking good care of people, everyone from her own staff down to hourly employees. Before I served up the evidence, she told me she'd feel "terrific" if people valued her work, valued her. And once she saw the evidence that's how she did feel. Unlike some leaders she didn't argue with the affirmation, the validation.

She had long seen herself as inferior intellectually. She was convinced of it. She didn't get good grades in elementary school. That debilitating conclusion, that false notion, stayed intact like a petrified leaf until she was almost 50 years old. The thing is she hadn't applied herself, and naturally her grades weren't that good. In our conversation she saw the flaw in her child's mind's thinking.

Once she made the inner shift, she said, "I think the rest of the changes I need to make will flow naturally." She was largely right, though of course she had to work at it systematically if she were to ease up on her staff and the organization as she was easing up on herself.

It's unusual for someone to make a wholesale shift in self-view so readily. Even after my colleagues and I have thoroughly prepared to work with someone, we never know.


To lead better—and live better—be sure to work on your mental game, while always also working directly on your form.

Behind each and everything not right about your form, your outward way of leading, is a wrong idea or a misplaced need, or a combination of both. If you want to raise your game, your job is to ferret out those misguided elements of your mental game and redirect them.

It's not necessarily easy to become aware of these things. They're cloaked, hidden behind a veil, often put there for a reason.

But self-awareness is only a means to an end, to the real prize—better self-management.

You need good mental, as my friend's father would say.


© Kaplan DeVries Inc.