I recently finished Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court by Jay Bilas and was surprised how many of Bilas’ ideas from sports were also relevant to success in business. There are many examples from sports that can help you be successful in business, and Bilas’ analysis of toughness is at the forefront of these lessons. Since reading the book, I have asked my team to read regularly the article that led to the book. The underlying principle for Bilas is that toughness is not about bravado and conflict. It is found in the heart of an individual willing to devote him- or herself to what s/he knows is right. Toughness isn’t physical. It has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. It’s an intangible, an attitude, a philosophy.Toughness comes from how you handle your experiences, what you learn from them, and how others guide you through them in your life. Most importantly, it is a skill that can be improved by working on it.
Bend but do not break
Bilas uses physical materials as a means of defining real toughness. In metallurgy toughness is a measure of how much energy a material can absorb before rupturing. Scientists have devised ways to measure a metal’s toughness through lab impact tests, such as swinging a hammer from a pendulum at a metal object to calculate how much energy is required to break the object. Hardness— in metallurgy, at least— is related to toughness, but it’s not the same thing. Hardness describes how much energy it takes to bend or change a material. Being able to bend under pressure without breaking is a more important attribute than hardness. Someone who bends without breaking and bounces back up will prevail over the “hard” athlete or person, i.e., someone who is resistant to bending under pressure but will break with enough force. Persevering, getting up when you have been knocked down, is what true mental toughness is. Soccer great Julie Foudy likens her spirit to a kids’ toy, an inflatable punching bag that pops back up when it is hit. True toughness is mental toughness, and has little to do with physical toughness. As we learned from metallurgy, it is mental toughness that makes a person, player or team unbreakable, whereas physical hardness can be more easily broken. Persistence is not just about pushing forward; it is about pushing through to reach a new height, exceeding a limit you thought you had . That takes mental toughness. Toughness is not about being big or strong, or being a bully. That displays the least amount of toughness. This is lesson number one for the entrepreneur: It is most important to take a blow and be able to bounce back.
You do not need to be a jerk to be tough
Toughness has no relationship to how nice a person is. There is no reason you can’t be exceedingly nice and incredibly tough at the same time. Those two traits are not mutually exclusive. Some people feel they must create confrontation to display toughness, but confrontation just shows the ability to create confrontation. What actually shows toughness is the ability to get through a task without complaining. It is not getting rattled by challenges in completing the task, but showing concentration and patience. Instead those truly tough meet these challenges head on. Lesson number two: Toughness is not acting tough; it is not letting anything stop you from accomplishing your tasks.
Toughness is focusing on what is important
Toughness is your willingness to fight through whatever comes your way. It is how you deal with adversity and what you learn from others you are invested with. Bilas quotes University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams:
“You can get whacked, the calls go against you, you can be physically challenged in a game. But you have to focus on what’s important. You cannot be deterred, intimidated or thrown off from your goal. That’s mental toughness…. Toughness is, ‘I’m not going to lose sight of what I want to do by what you do, or by outside influences.’ That is a real form of mental toughness.”
A corollary to the need to fight through whatever challenges you face is celebrating your colleagues who do. Although you should expect your colleagues to do tough things, it is important to celebrate when they do. Acknowledging and celebrating that those around you are doing tough things, and doing them for the good of the team, is important to a culture of winning. Lesson three: Toughness is about taking on and beating challenges while celebrating your colleagues for doing the same.
Trust equals toughness
It requires a certain toughness to trust in others and to trust and believe in yourself. Trust is a choice. Trustworthy people deal in truth. They speak the truth and accept the truth from those they trust and respect. If you expect a culture of trust, you have to build and foster a culture of truth. Accountability is related to trust. Most people believe that accountability means blame but it does not. Accountability is being held to the standard you have accepted as what you want, individually and collectively. Great colleagues choose to commit fully to the group and company’s goals and understand in the big picture what is required of each individual, even in the face of setbacks or tough competition. It is not some blind or naive acceptance of a boss’ instructions. A great colleague acknowledges the loftier goals and is willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the company.There is no true sacrifice without belief. Belief can be an incredibly powerful force. And it goes both ways. There is nothing more powerful than having a company or group behind you that believes in you. Particularly important at the unit, group or team level inside a larger company, is that the only people who truly know and understand the value of a colleague are his or her other colleagues and their boss. Outside honors are not enough. Great employees need to let each other know how valued and important they are, and great colleagues need to be celebrated internally. Lesson four: You must be tough enough to fully trust your colleagues and boss to achieve greatness (and they need to reciprocate and celebrate).
You are not tough alone
As well as trusting your colleagues, you need to help in-grain toughness in them and learn from their toughness. You are not tough alone. The best companies have a collective toughness, and that toughness is contagious. Bilas uses the example of Duke’s basketball coach: “Coach K always wanted our body language, collectively and individually, to project strength and power, not weakness.” Lesson five: Your whole group needs to show its toughness collectively.
Toughness is choosing the right path, not the easy path
Adversity occurs when your belief is tested, and is also where true toughness is tested. “Soft is when you choose the easier path when the right path is the harder one,” Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said. “That’s soft.”Failing does not make you a failure. Failing makes you a competitor. Every competitor fails. If you lay it on the line, you will come up short at times. Failure is a part of competing, and embracing that fact is an important component of toughness. Tough people fail, but tough people are not failures. The only failures are those who give up, or give in. Lesson six: Tough people take on challenges, they will fail occasionally and this openness to failing creates true toughness.
Toughness includes putting in the necessary preparation
Another indicator of toughness is not only taking on hard tasks but also spending the time and energy to prepare for the task at hand. In the business setting, this can range from reading about best practices or taking Coursera courses to scripting out conversations. Preparation allows people to react to situations quickly under pressure while instilling confidence. Preparation also should not be based on how difficult the current task is. If you and your organization want to be truly great, your group needs to approach every activity as a championship game and give championship effort in every single practice. Your competitor does not determine your standard of performance or your level of preparation. You need to strive to meet a standard of excellence, not just trying to beat one competitor. If you meet this standard of excellence, winning would take care of itself. A person who is prepared can face negative situations with confidence and belief that they can turn a negative into a positive. Preparation is like an investment, the greater the investment, the more resources you have at the end to accomplish the task. When a person is fully and completely prepared, it is harder to quit because of the investment made.Bilas notes, “[he] once heard Bob Knight say that everybody has a will to win, but not everybody has a will to prepare to win.” Lesson seven: Preparation is the way you invest in toughness and future success; the tougher you are, the harder you prepare.
Be at your toughest when needed
You need to understand when you need to be at your toughest, when you need to be prepared to do anything needed to succeed. Bilas again quotes Kansas Coach Self,
“I liken it to tennis. You can lose more than half of the points played and still win the match. You have to understand what the most important points are, and be at your toughest at those points. You have to have your concentration and your effort at their highest levels at those points in the game. That’s what tough players and tough teams do.”
Lesson eight: Understand the key parts of your business so you can achieve the overall goal.
Communication is the cornerstone of toughness
Communication is a vital element in true toughness, and it is a vital element in any good relationship. When communication is built on trust, true toughness can emerge. Bilas uses a basketball example. If, as a help defender, you are talking to your teammate guarding the ball, you are letting him know that you are there and ready to help him, and that you are providing him with the confidence to defend, all-out, without concern for getting beaten. But if you are not talking to him, if you are silently into your own defensive assignment and not focused on your part in the whole, your teammate may give in to that fear that he is all alone on that island, and may back off to keep from getting beaten off the dribble. Then your entire defense is far less effective. The me of your defense diminishes the power of the we of your defense. Your talk lets everyone know that you are not just concerned with guarding your man. Rather, it lets everyone know that you have their back, and you are totally engaged in collectively stopping your opponent. Your teammates must be able to trust completely that you are there to help them, and that you will be there without fail. Bilas points to the NASA phrase “Responsible to the element, accountable to the mission,” to emphasize the importance of communication. A true team player, a tough player, needs to be responsible for their specific role and assignment, but accountable to the mission. Communication in basketball, or in business, is about trust and honesty, and good communication requires toughness. To be a great communicator, you must be tough enough to say tough things to your teammates when it is necessary, and to hear tough things from your teammates when they believe it is necessary. Lesson nine: You must communicate constantly, and often with frank points, with your colleagues and hold yourself accountable for the overall success of your project.
Toughness is always planning for what comes next
Bilas uses the phrase “next play,” which he learned playing basketball at Duke, to show the importance of focusing on the present and what is about to happen rather than what just happened. In basketball, by not moving on to the next play immediately, you would be compounding a mistake you may have just made, either by making another or by missing an opportunity to make a great play. Failing to move on to the next play was itself a mistake, because it took focus and concentration off of the current moment, the only point in time that you could do something positive to impact the game. At the end of each play or action, the most important play is the next play. Lesson ten: Do not dwell on what just happened, good or bad, but focus on what you are going to do next.
Toughness is focusing on the team, not you, winning
Any great employee and great role player has to take more pride in the team or group than they do in their own individual wants and needs. Great employees have to fight the urge to be selfish, and throw themselves into the team. It requires commitment and toughness to accept. A person’s role may not be exactly what they wants to do, but it is exactly what the group or company needs them to do to win. Soccer superstar Mia Hamm said that a player’s role is to do whatever it takes to help the team win, and that nobody ever really knows what her role will be at any given time. Bilas asks, “Are you tough enough to help a teammate, even if you are competing against that teammate for playing time or a bigger role on the team?” That is where team interest intersects with self-interest, and the importance of “we” has to be greater than the importance of “me.”In the business world, will you help a colleague who you are competing against to get a promotion, if you are tough, you will. Rooting against a colleague is the opposite of toughness.The corollary to putting your company or group first is that when you fail, it is not your fault alone. Lesson eleven: Tough people put the group or company ahead of themselves.
Toughness includes honest self evaluation
To be truly tough, you have to accept the challenge of looking in the mirror and, with a clear head and clear eyes , evaluating the most important person in your life: yourself. The measure of true toughness is to evaluate yourself honestly against the highest possible standards. It is not about blaming yourself but holding yourself accountable. You must evaluate where you are as a person and professionally to understand how to reach your aspirations. Lesson twelve, (the final lesson): You will not be tough until you can critically evaluate your own performance.
Toughness makes you unbeatable
No matter how talented you and your colleagues are, you are not going to win if you are not tough. Toughness wins. Toughness prevails. But when you combine talent and true toughness, that combination can be unbeatable. Bilas’ book outlines how you and your company can achieve that toughness.
Although I normally try to limit the key takeaways from my posts to three, you cannot capture toughness in three bullets. Instead, I want to reinforce the lessons learned from Bilas book:
- It is most important to take a blow and be able to bounce back.
- Toughness is not just about acting tough; it is not letting anything stop you from accomplishing your tasks.
- Toughness is about taking on and beating challenges while celebrating your colleagues for doing the same.
- You must be tough to trust your colleagues and boss but you need to trust them fully for greatness (and they need to reciprocate and celebrate).
- Your whole group needs to show its toughness collectively.
- Tough people take on challenges, they will fail occasionally and this openness to failing creates true toughness.
- Preparation is the way you invest in toughness and future success; the tougher you are, the harder you prepare.
- Understand the key parts of your business so you can achieve the overall goal.
- You need to communicate constantly, and often with frank points, with your colleagues and hold yourself accountable for the overall success of your project.
- Do not dwell on what just happened, good or bad, but focus on what you are going to do next.
- Tough people put the group or company ahead of themselves.
- You will not be tough until you can critically evaluate your own performance.