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Get tough and get ahead

<b>Persistence, resilience and a certain bloody-mindedness are the characteristics successful leaders have in common, Stefan Stern discovers. But how do you develop them?</b>

What is it that divides the great successes in professional life from the also-rans? Are talent and creative flair the key attributes, or is it just a question of luck and timing? In practice, the qualities that successful leaders seem to have in common are persistence, resilience, and a certain bloody-mindedness. Talent and ability nice things to have come some way down the list.

The mentally tough professional does not allow current reality to overwhelm him or her. Events are faced down, challenges are overcome. Winners get out from under the irritations of the day. But what can ordinary folk do to pump up their mental resilience? Visualisation, says John Neal of Ashridge Business School, can help. Top athletes spend a significant amount of time visualising their high-quality, record-breaking performance, he says.

If you watch a high-jumper before a jump, you will see they spend time visualising their approach to the bar and then thinking through their position and even their landing. For some athletes this is so powerful that you will actually see their bodies making slight movements, which relate to the part of the event they are visualising, Neal says.

Often, people in business do exactly the opposite, he continues. They are worrying about what could go wrong. In visualisation terms, they are creating an image of things going wrong and seeing themselves failing in some way. What

they should be doing is visualising themselves achieving their objectives and performing in the highest possible way.

New research has identified mental resilience as the real dividing line between the good and the best. Graham Jones of the University of Wales in Bangor has conducted the most sustained analysis yet of elite sports people and looked at what has supported them in their drive to the top. From these findings it is possible to point to the qualities that winners have in common.

Toughness does not mean being tough all the time, Jones points out. Elite performers know when to switch off, and when to refocus their efforts. But his elite group do have a core of resilience about them. They are prepared to go through the pain barrier, when lesser competitors fall back.

Theres a level of self awareness and personal mastery, admits Sol Davidson, executive coach at Penna, and thats a point you arrive at after asking a lot of questions. How did your family handle difficult issues? Who handled the tough decisions in your family? Were you like that person? Were tough decisions ever faced up to? Its about getting some idea of where you may or may not have learned mental toughness from in the past. He also suggests identifying whether someone has a mentally tough role model in mind, or knows anyone whom they perceive as tough.

To make yourself more mentally resilient, you have to face

fears head on, he adds. You have to ask where does the fear originate thats where the material for self-awareness and personal mastery comes from.

It may sound more like training for the SAS than the boardroom, but if you want to get ahead, then your

head needs to build up its brawn.