Mental Resilience and Self Belief Can you stay the course? Who believes in you?
The first man who conquered Everest Sir Edmund Hillary had sympathy for the Buddhist teachings that one should choose their own path in life.’ It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves’ he said. We’re all tougher than we think …..and more vulnerable than we might accept.
Most organizations owes much to the personality of its founders and the early days of my former miliary unit will help you understand the emphasis on resilience, how it’s been core to effectiveness from the outset. Why in other words is there so much emphasis on mind over matter as central to effective elite performance. .The unit was conceived in the Second World War by ‘Colonel David ‘Stirling a twenty- six year old Scots guard whilst paralysed in both legs as a result of an accident on his first parachute jump. He’d landed hard and for an hour was blind. Rommel’s Africa Corps was rampant and pushing back. He envisaged a fighting force that would change modern combat warfare, not for his own personal gain but for a higher ideal – his country. He constantly fought to have his ideas heard and but for some ‘good fortune and some luck’ may never have succeeded. He’d taken part in a number of Commando raids that had failed and in a field hospital concluded they had failed because there was no surprise and they had been too big. He conceived a small and established a unit of five where 220 would have done previously.
Each unit would be self-sufficient. Having scribbled his simple plans all he had to do was convince the top brass. Initially it failed to impress his own superiors. Undeterred Stirling went over their heads and straight to the top. No longer paralyzed and on crutches he drove to the HQ of the new Commander-in chief Middle East. He told the sentry he had forgotten his pass, but was refused entry. He then squeezed through a gap in the fence, entered one door in the building and was thrown out. He found through another door the Deputy Chief of staff and made his case. Two days later he was promoted- Churchill believed in the idea of a’ butcher and bolt’ raiding force. That’s how and why the Special Air Services were established Stirling’s dream had become reality.
He made his own luck. In his recruiting drive of ‘the originals ‘ he selected a band of vagabonds who had to grasp and create a new role escaping from conventional military discipline. As he said later ‘ who didn’t fully appreciate they were running into a much more exacting type of discipline. In a sense, they weren’t really controllable. They were harnessable – they policed themselves. ’He might have made his own luck but encountered a major setback, the first operation was a disaster in terrible conditions. In bad weather conditions the mission was a failure before it got off the ground. Stirling himself was knocked unconscious on landing and only 22 out of 65 survived. Parachutes in those days were primitive and on landing many were dragged into sharp rocks. From the disaster he emerged a very disappointed man. but an officer in the Long Range Desert group who took the unit back to Cairo encouraged him to reform and start all over again. Quickly he drew some positive conclusions – there was no need for aircraft.
This brought immediate success. and recruitment of small raiding parties of the ‘thug variety’ who caused disruption out of all proportions to such a handful of men. He was a remarkable man; an adventurer who before the war he had been planning to climb Everest. One of the originals he selected included Paddy Mayne a boxer at University, lock forward for the Lions in South. When playing for Ireland he was described as playing with a ‘quiet almost ruthless efficiency.’ His citation for a VC mentioned how ‘his cool and determined action and his complete command of the situation, together with his unsurpassed gallantry, inspired all ranks.’ Known by myth as a maverick after success in the desert the former solicitor fought for the survival of the unit in the boardroom battles of army staff meetings. He knew how to argue his case and negotiate. The man many classified as an undisciplined adventurer earned a fearsome reputation for strict discipline and a vigorous training regime to prepare for landing in Sicily.
After the war the unit was almost disbanded but for the lobbying of ex soldiers. By 1950 it was part of the parachute regiment. Then came violence in Malaya and ‘Mad’ Mike Calvert who had ended the war as commander of the unti proposed deep-penetration units that could exist in the jungle for long periods, make contact with the natives, to win them over by kindness, by setting up medical clinics and rendering them unsympathetic to the enemy. It was the first of many hearts and minds campaigns. The idea was to train them to fight in the jungle in small groups of three or four .. The jungle is all about soaked clothing, a dark terrain, no sun, swamp land, snakes. And angry insects, not forgetting leeches. For me it was one of the hardest parts of selection.
In Malaya the foundations of the modern regiment were laid down, new skills developed from practical experience in combat against a terrorist force The commander of my former squadron set up a selection course to test men beyond the limits of their endurance. The original qualities: good judgement in spite of stress and fatigue and the ability to think alone under conditions of extreme isolation and hardship, looking for people who have to be able to think clearly when things are out of control and cope with desert, jungle and other varied environments have not changed significantly since that time.
You might be in an observation post with your own company for a month in one room. There’s not many occupations where spending a month on two hours sleep and having to perform at operational levels would be allowed by Health and Safety. It was a Spartan who said fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless. (as an aside though have you noticed how forgetful people can get before deadlines, in the run up to important interviews or seen them freeze under the spotlight of a quarterly board review?) Consequently the trials ,tribulations and trauma’s, to those who don’t and even those who do pass the physically and mentally draining selection, process are an experience.
In rugby Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan has a term for “Test match animals”. According to Sir Ian, they are a special breed; as the demands get greater they get better… with every step up they go up a notch. For him the ones that matter have the full package of skill, fitness, and athleticism. The brain adds the extra. This is the same in any organisation where the stakes are so high we can’t afford to make a mistake.
In most selection courses that I have seen regardless of the physical and mental discomfort many candidates fail themselves as they start to understand their own capabilities and limitations. However the key is not to give up. Selection processes should not be just about finding the most perfect performer during the selection process it is about finding those individuals who have the basics skill sets to become successful in the future, the best selection courses develop the individual before testing them, passing any selection process should not be the end of their development but the beginning.
Ensuring that we allow people to really perform at their best because we have given them the tools to do so. How they perform after that is down to them. Determination and mental resilience being key aspects of this process. Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor expresses it really clearly, ’ you can’t take my mind. You can beat me but you cannot control what’s going on in my mind. ‘ I understand where he is coming from. There’s a great example from his book when a girl in a concentration camp who still had the capacity to find a buttercup and give it to her friend as a sign of friendship and beauty.
For a human being to have that kind of capability when you are in utter desperation and going back into survival mode, that’s something beautiful. I often use a phase that “nobody gets into my mind but me”. It is my code for staying in the zone and remaining mentally tough when a situation is becoming difficult.
Of course those of you who have experience of multi-million or billion pound high level contracts will know that in certain situations you are the equivalent of a hostage negotiator at the boardroom table. If you’ve dealt with a merger or withdraw from a joint venture or fired a CEO you’ll know what happens. Having to go to Japan for example to tell your Joint Venture Partner representing their key industry board that the European Commission is going to apply monopolies regulations to protect Europe isn’t that dissimilar. Facing a coup and insurrection within your Nigerian office or taking on the Unions where they watch your every move from the time you arrive and leave isn’t perhaps as emotionally wrenching or personally dangerous but it evokes similar stress responses.
Making people redundant too is a thankless task, taking over and tests resilience to the limit. Being held to account publicly for failure, fired made redundant isn’t the best experience in the world either. By the same token mundane everyday tasks such as sales roles can be extraordinarily psychologically demanding. Don’t forget many job interviews or Assessment Centres developed out of War Office Selection Boards and the Office of the Strategic Services Look at the evidence of workplace stress and it’s economic and societal impact. How about bullying in the workplace? The everyday workplace is as one expert Cary Cooper has said ‘a scary place.’ Performing at elite level is not dissimilar. In extreme and day to day situations faced at elite level you need to escape unscathed from any threatening or stressful situation. Fear, anger, and losing composure during or before a TV interview operation sales call or negotiation are counterproductive. Lose it on the touchline as a coach or on the pitch as a player and you have lost.
You still have to be able to keep your cool. You have to perform short term as well as over the long haul. What makes up resilience and self-belief that underpin sustained elite performance in the pressure zone and enables you to keep cool ? And how can these qualities be identified and improved? You need simple techniques because as we all know under pressure we operate on instinct…. And instinct has no time for workshop manuals In the course of our research on mental resilience and toughness in the sports psychology area. we came across ambiguity and conflicting definitions in this area as well as overlaps. What we conclude from our experience and research is that Workplace as well as life resilience is just another muscle, if we just don’t practise it or fully understand how we can control our fears under pressure when the going gets tough we will weaken. We have to develop and utilise methods and techniques that suit our individual needs and then apply them constantly. More to follow on how to actually operate in this environment.