Developing mental toughness to defeat crises


In their work, Communication, Organization, and Crisis, Matthew W. Seeger, Timothy L. Sellnow and Robert R. Ulmer describe crises as specific, unexpected, and non-routine events or series of events that can create high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization’s high-priority goals.

Crises have the capacity to disrupt operations, destroy practices, damage reputations and foist illiquidity on organizations. The 2007-2008 financial crisis resulted in the failure of many businesses across the globe. It also precipitated a meltdown in economic activities leading to what is referred to as the ‘Great Recession’. The crisis was responsible for the sack of five bank chief executive officers in 2009 by the Central Bank of Nigeria because of their high level of non-performing loans.

While crisis may manifest in different forms, its raison d’être is to weaken the structure of an organization, disrupt its goal and defeat its leader. The essence of a crisis is to take an organization off its course so that it does not achieve its pre-determined goal. Overcoming the threats posed by a crisis is contingent on understanding what the crisis is out to achieve and short-circuiting it.

Jonathan and Boko Haram onslaught

Shortly after the 2011 presidential election which saw the emergence of Dr Goodluck Jonathan as the winner, there was an escalation in the destructive activities of Boko Haram insurgents. They attacked government establishment with uncommon venom. They killed and maimed with the ferocity of a wounded tiger. They were so brazen that they successfully attacked Louis Edet House, the police headquarters in Abuja. It got so bad that President Jonathan lamented that the terrorists had succeeded in infiltrating his government, planting its members in government agencies and security outfits.

While the whole nation groaned under the insecurity threat posed by the terrorists, the mission of the group was to take the government off its course with the aim of making its ouster a done deal. The insurgents and those behind them were able to achieve their mission because the government played their card.

According to the International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Dr Jonathan had, while campaigning in 2011, made 91 major promises to Nigerians, which include the completion of Lagos-Jebba rail project, the completion of Second River Niger Bridge, provision of stable and constant electricity, resuscitation of Ajaokuta Steel Complex, attraction of $25billion worth of investment into the nation’s oil and gas sector as well as the diversification of the economy, among others.

But as a consequence of his embroilment in the Boko Haram crisis, Dr Jonathan was unable to pay the required attention to the promises he voluntarily made and when the elections came in 2015, his inability to fulfill all of his promises became a campaign issue. He eventually lost his bid for re-election.

One thing leaders must never forget is that the whole essence of a crisis is to stop them from achieving their original goal, thereby portraying them as failures. Those who understand this will never abandon their predetermined goals while addressing the crisis at hand.


Defeating crises

Crises are the undoing of many leaders. Otherwise successful corporate leaders have seen their careers plummet during a crisis. On the other hand, some leaders who had been regarded as lackluster performers saw their careers soar to unprecedented height as they steered their organizations out of crises.

Defeating a crisis is a function of the leader’s mental toughness. Leaders who are swept away by crises are those whose mental toughness is inferior to the crisis at hand. On the other hand, leaders who are able to handle crisis are those who have trained themselves to the point that their mental toughness can outmatch the crisis.

Mental toughness is the ability to tower above doubts, worries, difficulties, problems and inconveniences that may want to stall the attainment of a set goal. It is a resolve that does not succumb to failure. It is a mindset that stops at nothing but the predetermined goal. It is an attitude that does not see any aspiration as being beyond accomplishment.

Generally, reaction to a crisis comes in three ways. The first is the belief that the crisis is insurmountable, the second is the intention to just manage the situation, the third is the resolve to overcome the situation.

Those who believe that the crisis is insurmountable allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the situation to the extent that they put up little or no resistance against it. They do not see themselves as being able to handle the crisis. As a result, they become afraid and panicky. This deprives them of the ability to think properly about the crisis. Because they have been overcome by fear, they cannot come up with an accurate analysis of the situation and consequently cannot produce the right strategy to get out of the situation. At the end of the day, they are either drowned by the crisis or swept away by it.

Those who just want to manage the crisis though believe they have the capacity to withstand the crisis, are bereft of the imagination to get out of it. So, they concentrate their efforts on just a situation-by-situation reaction to the crisis. Their failure to be proactive robs them of the chance to get ahead of the crisis and determine how it goes. However, because they promptly react to issues arising as a result of the crisis, they are able to tag along but fail to make the most of the opportunities spawned by the crisis.

Those who make the resolve to overcome the crisis are those who believe that they are stronger than the crisis. Right from the outset, they are determined that no matter what the crisis may spring and how long it may last, they are going to have the last laugh. As a consequence of this resolve, they do not go below the crisis as those who believe it is insurmountable, neither do they level up with it as those whose goal is just to manage the situation, rather they soar above the crisis and that puts them at a vantage position to determine outcomes. Those who have this disposition are those with mental toughness. They are so resilient and determined in achieving their goals that they do not give an elbow room to any force that may hinder them.


Soichiro Honda

In 1924, Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motors, designed a new piston ring which not many experts gave a chance given the designs in vogue at the time. But Honda was not bothered by experts’ opinions. He invested the whole of his life savings on the project. When that was not enough, he pawned his wife’s jewelry and put the proceeds in the project. Eventually, he got his vehicle out but initially the product was spurned. After a while, the car became the preference of Japan and other Asian countries.

As he was reveling in his success, his main factory was destroyed during World War II by the United States of America bomber planes in 1944. As if that was not bad enough, the following year, his second factory was leveled by an earthquake.

Many people advised him to give up on his dream and go after less ambitious ventures but Soichiro Honda was undaunted. He believed he was bigger than the adversity he encountered. So, rather than give up, he started the process of rebuilding his plant. This time, the process was at a faster pace because he had already built a reputation. Honda Motors bounced back and it has been growing stronger since then. To the credit of Soichiro Honda, the company that almost died as a dream reported $143.1 billion in total revenue in 2019.


Tough times don’t last, tough people do.

How to develop mental toughness

The following steps will help in developing mental toughness.


Stick to your goal but review your strategy

As stated earlier, the purpose of a crisis is to cause a detour from the goal. Once this is allowed to happen, failure becomes imminent. The purpose of any business is value creation. No crisis should be allowed to stop a business from creating value because once that happens, the business veers off its course and it is bound to go down.

What may happen in a crisis is a change of strategy. The goal is the end, strategy is the means. The means is not as important as the end. While a crisis may leave an organization and its leaders with no option other than a change of strategy, what must not change is the goal, which is value creation. So, no matter how tough the situation gets or how tumultuous the crisis turns, stay focused on the goal. It is doing that which will ensure the safe arrival of your ship at the harbor.


Focus on the important things, not the urgent ones

In a crisis, leaders want to be seen as being in charge of the situation and take steps that would portray them as handling the situation properly. But more often than not, what leaders pay attention to is the urgent while they neglect the important. Focusing on the urgent will only give a placebo relief and not the desired solution. A leader must answer the question of what are the things he must do to change the tide in favour of his organization. Those are the things he must first attend to before any other thing.

There is no better time for a leader to practise the 80/20 Rule than during a crisis. According to Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, 80 per cent of an organization’s result is generated by 20 per cent of its activities while 80 per cent of its activities produce only 20 per cent of its result. This is what is known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule. By making activities that produce the highest value his focus, the leader concentrates his energy on the most important activities and that speeds up the process of getting out of the crisis.

To develop mental toughness, resolve never to put yourself at the whims and caprices of a crisis. View every situation on its merit and place priority on the important ones.


Respond, don’t react

In a crisis, a leader must learn to respond rather than react to situations. When you react in a crisis, you give the crisis an edge and put yourself at its mercy, which could result in the prolongation of the crisis. But when you respond, you take control of the situation and dictate the terms because you become proactive and are a step ahead of it. This will eventually take the wind out of the sail of the crisis and give you respite.


Stay positive

Those who get overwhelmed during a crisis are those whose focus is the difficulties and inconvenience the crisis foists on them. Because they see no silver lining ahead, they get more entangled in the web of the crisis and are unable to extricate themselves from its grips. But those with mental toughness are different. They see the crisis as a passing phase and look forward to its resolution in their favour.

Thomas Edison was said to have carried out over 10,000 experiments before he was able to get the production of the electric bulb right. With every failed experiment, the inventor said he just learnt a new way that would not get him the result he wanted. That was being positive. Every leader must develop a positive attitude. What lies ahead is far better and greater than what is behind. The possibilities of tomorrow outstrip the challenges of the current crisis.


Last line

Tough times eventually surrender to those who refuse to surrender to them.






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