Mental Stamina of a Great Business Mind — an Interview With Phil La Duke for Thrive Global About Thinking Globally to Achieve Leadership Greatness

I had the pleasure of talking to Phil La Duke of ERM a Global Consulting Firm based in London, UK. Phil is an itinerate speaker and writer and has over 300 published magazine articles and two books Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business! and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence […]

I had the pleasure of talking to Phil La Duke of ERM a Global Consulting Firm based in London, UK. Phil is an itinerate speaker and writer and has over 300 published magazine articles and two books Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business! and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. He has addressed global audiences at international venues and expositions. Recently La Duke was named to Thinkers360’s Global List of Thought Leaders in Culture, and prior to that its list of Global Thought Leaders in Sustainability. Mr. La Duke has also been listed as one of the 104 top people working in worker safety globally by ISHN magazine as well as making the magazine’s list of “Up and Comers in Safety”. La Duke works with global clients to improve the safety of their workforce, which is intrinsically linked to individuals’ resilience

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get to be where you are right now? 

Phil La Duke was born in metro Detroit and still calls the area home, although his work takes him around the globe. He graduated from the University Of Michigan with a degree in Education with a State of Michigan certificate in Training, Design, and Development. The first part of his career, La Duke spent developing change interventions for large global corporations, before turning his attention toward worker safety (a field where he is a disruptive influencer). La Duke is a certified Just Culture Practitioner and ardently believes that resilience is key not just to worker safety but overall mental health and performance. “Resilient people recover quickly from tragedy and even physical illness, conversely non-resilient people tend to dwell on the pass which slows the healing (mentally, physically, and spiritually) Truly successful business people must possess a high degree of resilience and this is a skill that can be learned and improved.”

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How did this quality help you overcome obstacles on the path of becoming an influential and inspiring leader?

I am an extrovert and it helped me overcome some very difficult setbacks and tragedies. My wife left me after our child was born shortly (and recently died of a heroin overdose) after I lost my job in one of the worst economic periods of recent history. My father and brother in-law died of industrial illnesses, my mother died at 60, just to name a few. Were I not able to channel my negative experience into something positive it could have crippled me emotionally. But, because I have always had a network of great family and friends who support me, I was able to persevere.

What does it mean to be mentally-strong in the hyper-competitive world of running a business or an organization?

Compassion. Mentally-strong business leaders a binary sense of what’s “right” or what’s “wrong” and they communicate openly and honestly with others to determine the causes of undesirable behaviors before deciding on a course of action. Mentally-strong leaders can remain true to their personal convictions even if a less secure leader would view such behavior as indicative of weakness. The mentally-strong leader answers to his or her own ethics and doesn’t feel compelled to defend them; his or her life is theirs for the living and not subject to a vote or public opinion. Often leaders are called on to do what is right, not what is popular, and that can be mentally taxing. Mentally-strong business leaders possess an inner strength that allows them to remain strong under pressure.
Mentally-strong business leaders put people before profit. Why? Because you will always have good years and bad years in business, but having good, emotionally mature, and dedicated people is something that should be constant. Mental- and Spiritual-strength comes from taking care of the people you are charged with leading. A strong, talented, and engaged workforce reinforces the business leader’s strength and resilience.

Optimism. The mentally-strong business leader is an optimist. Recent studies in brain research have shown that optimistic outlooks directly correlate to rebounding from a tragedy or even an illness. Did you ever ask yourself why we tell our children not to take candy from strangers? Are most strangers trying to harm our children? Certainly not. The answer is simple pragmatism and risk to reward ratio.

Four possible conditions exist:

  • A stranger wants to harm our child and succeeds
  • A stranger wants to harm our child and does not succeeds.
  • A stranger does not want to harm our child and gives them a harmless treat.
  • A stranger does not want to harm our child and our child does not engage with the stranger.
  • In all of these scenarios a strangers could easily harm our child, by telling our children to avoid strangers we are able to avoid a horrendous outcome. So despite the fact that most strangers are not trying to harm our children we chose to allow our suspicions to guide our behavior. This pessimism is more than just a defense mechanism against disappointment—it actually creates physiological pathways that make us less resilient. Think of the stress of always being alert to dangers; people tend to see the Fight/Flight/Freeze response as a binary response (we either rapidly react to danger in one of these ways or we don’t) but it tends to be more of a continuum and are adrenal gland releases over 30 toxins into our body.

Continuous Learners. Learning helps us overcome our natural tendency to expect, and prepare for, disaster. Amazingly, learning doesn’t just provide us new knowledge or skills, but it also improves our neural pathways and allows us to build the skills we need to see the silver lining in situations instead of the potential dangers. Optimism is a skill that needs to be learned, but before you can learn to be optimistic you have to unlearn the default setting of pessimism that our subconscious has programed for us. Abraham Lincoln reputedly said “We’re just about as happy as we make up our minds to be,” As it turns out, it appears that not only was Lincoln right on this account but his quote is backed up by hard science.

Physically Fit. It’s tough to remain mentally-strong when you are ill. Scientists are finding that working out not only improves your immune system and helps prevent or stave off adverse medical conditions but will actually make you happier, and therefore more resilient. In fact, many of the toxins released into our bodies collect in our muscles and a good exercise regimen helps work those toxins out of our bodies.

They effectively manage stress. Stress management is key to retaining mental toughness. Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of protecting us from danger. Without stress we would blissfully roast our hands against a hot stove, or lop our way into oncoming traffic where smiling motorists would mow us down. We owe our lives to stress. When stress is properly applied to our bodies it saves our lives. We yank our hands away from hot stoves, leap in panicked jerks out of the path of oncoming traffic as the freaked-out motorist careens wildly through traffic to avoid us. Yes, stress is an important part of our survival. But what about when stress is misused, misinterpreted, or misdirected by our bodies (did I miss any “misses”?) The same reflexes designed to preserve our fleshy behinds turns on our bodies like a jilted ex-lover.
Most of the information our brains receive comes to us through our subconscious. In order for us to be able to focus and concentrate on abstract tasks our brains automate many of our routine tasks. Picture your brain as a computer filled with thousands of software programs that automate the simpler tasks, and even some tasks that are not so simple. How many of us have to stop and think about the physical steps required to turn a doorknob, start a car, or drive to work. We do all these things without thinking because our brain has automated these tasks.

A lot of people in the business world feel as if talking about mental health makes them appear weak. How do you feel about showing mental strength and setting an example of what it takes to have the strong mental stamina to succeed?

A lot is changing in today’s perception of mental health as a weakness, but it is still a taboo. Mental strength and mental health are synonymous—it’s simply impossible to be mentally tough and be exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. That is not to say that a mentally tough leader cannot suffer from a mental illness, but resilient leaders are better able to manage the daily stresses that trigger their mental illnesses. But beyond that, the most mentally-strong business leaders are not afraid to be upfront and honest about their illness. Where a mentally-weak business leader would be so full of fear that others will discover their Achilles Heel of mental illness, mentally-strong leaders are no more likely to be crippled by a mental illness than President Franklin Roosevelt allowed his physical limitations interfere with his ability to lead the U.S. through the Great Depression and WWII. History is filled with mentally-strong business leaders who were, or accused of being, mentally ill from Steven Jobs to George S. Patton. There is a fine line between crazy and genius. Mentally-strong business leaders know this and don’t fear it.

Is there a particular person, a book, or place of wisdom that has inspired you to become a successful and mentally-strong leader?

Resilient: How To Grow An Unshakable Calm, Strength, And Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D

Can you give us 5 tips on maintaining strong mental health stamina to succeed in the modern business world? Tell us a little about why each point matters.

  1. Be true to yourself. In your darkest hour it will be you and you alone, and while the easiest solution may be tempting you will always have to live with the decision. Live your life in alignment with your values and you will never have any regrets.
  2. Eat right and exercise. You have to remain good physical health to endure the rigors of life’s great stressors.
  3. Feed your spiritual self. Prayer, meditation, or simply contemplating your place in the universe is important to ensure that you keep a clear head. You cannot be mentally strong without ministering to your spiritual self. Also, ministering to your own spirituality will help you be more optimistic and resilient.
  4. Be courageous. There is always something in life that can beat you down if you let. Face problems and tragedies face on, and recognize that everyone you meet is facing some crisis or hardship in their life. Be courageous enough to fight for those who are suffering.
  5. Foster a culture of resilience. A great leader focuses beyond his or her immediate circumstances and expands that mental, physical, and spiritual strength to the larger organization and greater community.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Kindness and compassion does not denote weakness. It often takes far more mental toughness to be kind and compassionate than it does to be cruel and indifferent. If you find an opportunity to ease someone’s burden seize it; you can change the entire universe with one act of kindness, but it takes courage to do that.

What does it mean to be mentally-strong in the age of information and technology?

I don’t see a big difference between mental strength now in the age of information and technology. The biggest difference is in decades past, business leaders were faced with a decision, did the research, and made a decision. But today, information comes in so fast that leaders are forced to make a decision in an environment where contradictory information comes in constantly. It makes mental-strength more essential, but the core essence remains the same: mentally-strong/tough leaders will always outperform those who lack this toughness.

Can an imbalance in private life cause a mentally-strong leader to deviate away from the path of success? Why? How to alleviate this problem?

No. To be a truly mentally strong leader, i.e. a resilient leader one has to maintain balance in life. Today, private life and work life are so seldom cut and dry that the truly mentally strong person achieves and maintains that balance and that is the difference between a mentally strong person and a mentally weak person.

Building the strong leadership position requires intense interaction with other people. These professional interactions can be both positive and negative, depending on the kinds of people we interact with to achieve our goals. What is the better choice to make to achieve greatness: learn to interact with toxic acquaintances to ‘get to the top,’ or choose to be a loner and do all the grunt work individually without dealing with the toxicity of others?

Neither. One of the keys to being mentally-tough is to reject the binary choices. When faced with a toxic person, the mentally strong person does not feed into the toxicity. Instead, the mentally strong person responds to the toxic individually professionally and assertively, eventually the toxic person will drop this defense mechanism or leave the organization. It is NEVER the right solution to go against your values to achieve success. In fact, it’s impossible to do so.

If the readers of this interview series would like to read more about you, how they can reach out?

  • Twitter: @Philladuke

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