In a weathered file folder tucked away on a closet shelf in my office, there are three well-worn pieces of paper. The edges are threadbare, about what you’d expect considering they’re 44 years old. I’ve read them so many times over the years that the words are burned into my memory. In their lifetime, they’ve been tacked to walls, taped on whiteboards, and used as bookmarks. Those three pieces of paper changed my life.

Summer Camp Built More Than Memories

In the summer of 1976, when the rest of the country was focused on celebrating the bicentennial, I was humming “Afternoon Delight” and honing my meager basketball skills at George Raveling’s camp at Washington State University. During my time at Cougar Cage Camp, my game definitely improved. We played at least three full scrimmages each day, with drills in between focused on individual skill development. But it was the session with Coach on the last day of camp that left the most enduring impression.

Educator First; Coach Second

When Coach Raveling spoke to us, the subject wasn’t basketball. Instead, he talked about life. He was a contemporary of the legendary John Wooden and had a remarkably similar philosophy – he considered himself an educator first, a coach second. He was the first black basketball coach in what was then the PAC-8 conference. He was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day he told the world “I Have a Dream” and kept an original copy of the speech. He was a prolific reader and was widely known to give away as many books as he read.

Three Pieces of Paper That Taught Resilience

On that summer day in 1976, Coach handed out three pieces of colored paper. On one, President Calvin Coolidge stoked the virtues of persistence with “Press On.” On another, poet Walter Wintle evoked the spirit of positivity with “Thinking.” On the third, writer Elbert Hubbard invoked the necessity of loyalty to effective teamwork. That summer, I learned the meaning of resilience. I learned what it meant to be mentally tough. And I carried those lessons with me everywhere I went from the day Coach Raveling handed me those three pieces of paper.

10 Ways to Build Mental Resilience in Leadership

  1. Believe in yourself. Confidence is a state of mind. It’s more than daily affirmations; it’s mentally committing to a path and trusting that you have the ability to complete the journey. The mental toughness that grows from your confidence will set you apart from others and inspire your followers.
  2. Embrace failure. No matter how confident you are, you’re still going to make mistakes. From time to time, you’re even going to fail. But failure is just part of the journey. Mental toughness grows from your ability to learn from your mistakes and overcome your failures. Greatness comes from your willingness to embrace failure and wisdom you gain from experience.
  3. Never quit. The first sentence of Coolidge’s “Press On” is echoed through popular witticisms such as “when the going get tough, the tough get going,” and “keep your nose to the grindstone.” Life is like a game of Australian Rules football; mental toughness is what gets you through a game of footy. And persistence and determination are the cornerstones of mental toughness.
  4. Maintain an even strain. Admittedly, this is one of my favorite lines from “The Right Stuff.” But it also defines how important controlling your emotions is to maintaining focus, determination, and mental toughness. That doesn’t mean you aren’t affected by your emotions; it means that you don’t allow those emotions to control how you respond to a situation or how you make decisions.
  5. Shut down the haters. “Haters gonna hate.” There’s nothing you can do to stop your detractors from trying to tear you down, but that doesn’t mean you have to let them. When confronting an especially toxic individual, do so rationally and calmly. Don’t let them get the better of you. Lean on facts and logic rather than passion. Part of being mentally tough is knowing when to walk away from your detractors.
  6. Just say “no.” Too many times, we say “yes” when we know inside that we should say “no.” Someone wants your help on a project. An overwhelmed coworker asks you to do something you don’t have time for. A friend thinks it would be great if you volunteered with them. Your first impulse is usually to say “yes.” But, taking on more than you have time for only leads to stress and burnout, while putting the things you should be doing at risk. It isn’t personal. Just say “no.” You’ll be happier in the end.
  7. Stay flexible. Helmuth von Moltke is often quoted for saying, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” While that isn’t exactly what he said, the idea is sound – few things work out exactly as planned, so you need to remain flexible. Change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not. Deal with it. Embracing change is a core principle of mental toughness. If you plan for it, you’ll find that life tends to go a lot smoother for you.
  8.  Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is essence of Stoicism – differentiating between what you can and cannot control in life and learning to let go of those things over which you have no influence. In Epictetus’s Discourses, he states, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” Focus on what you can control, where you can make positive change, and avoid yelling at clouds.
  9. Take care of yourself. The Performance Triad is one of the simplest ways to improve your physical and mental well-being. Get adequate sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a well-balanced diet. It’s not rocket science. I like to eat Five Guys as much as the next person, but before I do, I’m going to earn some sweat equity on the treadmill. Taking care of yourself isn’t difficult. Just do it.
  10. Always look at the bright side. I am a firm believer that there really is a silver lining in every cloud. Sometimes, it just takes a while to find it. That kind of perpetual optimism has allowed me to stay mentally tough even in the worst of times. It is so ingrained in my personality that bad news rarely flusters me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel stress or even get a little depressed when things don’t go my way. Instead, I see temporary setbacks as that – temporary. I know from experience that keeping a positive outlook allows me to work through the hard times while waiting for the bright side to arrive.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.