Building Psychological Strength

by Seth Kahan

Building Psychological StrengthTo succeed in a turbulent environment you need a robust psychology. This is where many fall short. They clutch when they could reach. When faced with calamity they set their sights on survival rather than leadership. Rather than going for real opportunity they set their sights low. If the game changes and you don’t, it’s game over.

I have had the honor to work side-by-side with true visionaries. For example, I spent two years at the World Bank helping Jim Wolfensohn while he was president.

Not a day went by when there was only one crisis in full swing:  political coups, natural disasters, economic meltdowns, wars, famine, and drought. They are all in a day’s work when the entire planet is your concern.

I sometimes found myself overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of challenges around the world, let alone the inner dramas leaders are enmeshed in as political factions seek to prove them wrong or take them out.

Yet, Wolfensohn remained on his game for a full decade. Not only did he lead effectively during large-scale major financial catastrophes like the Asian financial crisis of 1997, he was able to introduce major innovations that achieved global impact such as the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF) of 1999.

In the midst of disaster and calamity he was able to see clear and push through policy that forever improved the way the world addresses some of its most difficult and intractable problems, changing the game of development for the forseeable future.

Here are seven things you can do to build psychological strength:

1. Feed your mind well

Pay attention to what you read, listen to, and watch. Read quality journalism; don’t get lost in the pundits’ pandemonium. Keep your media habits in control.

2. Associate with the Best

Choose peers and social activities that place you in proximity to people who play hard and well.

3. Focus on Constructive Futures

You may not be able to control what appears in your mind, but you can control what you keep there and cultivate. When thinking about the future, don’t get lost in what-if scenarios unless you’re doing scenario planning. Put your attention on the future you want to bring into existence and the path from here to there.

4. Focus on Lessons Learned

As you review past experience, mine it for lessons learned, knowledge you can use, appreciation of those who contributed, and leave it at that. Don’t spend too much time on blame or judgment. Think of the past as a pile of building materials and select the best for constructing your future.

5. Build Capacity through Intentional Stress

Body builders go to the gym to subject themselves to controlled, intentional stress.  Building psychological strength is no different. Purposefully engage in activities that take you to your limit, but control the intensity carefully. You want to be stretched beyond current capacity, but not exposed to injury.

6. Rest

Take time out to recuperate. Muscles don’t develop if they don’t have time to rebuild. This literally means time to sleep as needed. And it also means time to eat healthy, and engage in activities that you enjoy emotionally.

7. Maintain Strong Boundaries

Everyone needs personal time. Down time provides the space you need to reassess, integrate, have fun, and plan your personal objectives. This, too, increases your ability to take heat.

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Seth KahanSeth Kahan is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Marriott, Prudential, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Visit for a free excerpt.

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