Mental Fitness for Leaders

Jim has just lost his most important client.

Beth has an upcoming investor presentation and losing is NOT an option.

Michael has been losing key staff because news broke of the business being sold


There is no shortage of leadership challenges and they come in all sorts of colors and degrees of complexity. What they all have in common? All of them trigger unwanted emotions in our minds, that distract us - sometimes paralyze us - from acting with calm, clear-headed confidence. They distract us from identifying the best approach to the challenge and they prevent us from springing into laser-focused action, but without any of these negative emotions.

TO BE CLEAR: Building our Mental Fitness is NOT related to any notion of treating a mental disorder! Please read on to learn more. 


The ability to activate our “self-command muscle” in our brain, in order to avoid being steered by our own negative thoughts and emotions in case of any upsetting event, but to chose a much wiser response in calm, discerning confidence, that generates positive outcomes  - that is Mental Fitness!

Or in other words:


Your capacity to respond to life’s challenges with a positive rather than a negative mindset

This framework has been developed by Shirzad Chamin and summarized in his New York Times Best Seller "Positive Intelligence". The validity of his mental fitness framework is heavily supported by a whole body of research and scientific evidence.


The tell tale sign for whenever we are about to be driven by our survival brain instead of our clear minded, discerning brain, is that we feel emotions, such as

Stress and pressure
Negative feeling towards self or others
Negative feelings toward circumstances
Feeling overwhelmed
Feeling powerless
  • Etc....

Whenever we are feeling any of those and other negative emotions, we have activated powerful neural pathways in the “survival” part of our brain.

When our brain categorizes a situation as a threat - even subconsciously - these neural pathways are being activated.

The triggers perceived as "threats" can be as insignificant (non life and death) as an upcoming sales pitch, for which we may be judged, or a looming project deadline, for which we procrastinate, in a futile attempt to not have to face it today.

Whether it is in low-stakes or high-stakes situations, our survival brain is triggered and activated all the time, because we have trained it to be!


Mental fitness is about choosing a different response, generated in the Middle pre-frontal cortex of our brain - the place that is capable of creating enormous, positive outcomes through discernment. This is very much like "getting sage advice, although from ourselves.

If we are in the right mindset - taking a generative perspective - we are capable of activating:

  • The unfettered Exploration of all the facts, with great curiosity
  • The Navigation of choices in the most complex network of cross-roads in our work and life
  • The Activate ability to spring into inspired action
  • Empathy for ourselves and others
  • The ability to Innovate and create solutions for any problem

Let us call these five capabilities our "Sage".

In such a mindset - our Sage Perspective - we are capable of creating a gift or opportunity from any situation or outcome. Such is the nature of our Sage Perspective.

Unfortunately, our survival brain is very strong and dominant. After all, we have trained and strengthened the corresponding neural pathways for a lifetime! 

Luckily, for all events we are confronted with, we have a choice to take the Sage Perspective and activate any of its five powers, and build and strengthen NEW neural pathways.

The bad news is that UNLESS we have built and strengthened the necessary self-command muscle, and build new neural highways, we will automatically choose to take the "neural "highway" of the survival brain's response! 

THE SABOTEURS (Personified Survival Brain)

At the root level, there are 10 drivers of negative emotion. To some degree they exist in all of us, however which of them are dominant differs from person to person.

ALL of our distress in the forms of anxiety, disappointment, stress, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt etc., is entirely self-made.

We are personifying these drivers of negative emotions and call then Saboteurs, solely to make it easier to describe and distinguish how they work.

The one Saboteur that everyone has, the master Saboteur, is called the Judge.

This one represents our ability to quickly judge ourselves, others, or circumstances. In the early times of our evolution as a species, this was a key survival skill.

Even in our modern times, having a quick judge is saving our lives every day. For example, once we have seen (or imagined) that being hit by a car can be disastrous, we quickly judge the traffic situation each time we want to cross a road on foot. 

The problem is that the judge is not discerning. He cannot differentiate between different kinds of situations.

He is always active and judges everything and everyone, including ourselves, and he will always generate a fear based response of some kind. 

 The Judge has nine possible Accomplice Saboteurs, that “help” identify and interpret different kinds of threats. 


If you want to assess which of these Saboteur are more dominant in you than the others, try this free self-assessment 


The truly mischievous nature of our Saboteurs is in the fact that they are telling us the lie that the emotions and reactions they trigger are good for us.
As in: "But without a constant sense of urgency, I would never achieve anything!"

For example: our Controller may tell us that in order to win this project, we must oversee (micro-manage) everyone on our team, because people can not be trusted to do their best unless we put them under pressure!

We may win the project following the Saboteur's advice - but at a hefty emotional cost and without the much better outcome that our Sage Perspective would have been able to generate in the process.

What happened in this example, is that this Saboteur has distorted our otherwise wonderful ability to do focused quality work into creating the worst version of ourselves as a leader, constantly mistrusting, fueling our fear of losing, and in addition making everybody else on the team miserable.

What is just as bad, is that we have been triggering the Saboteurs of our people in the process. Some of which may just have activated their Judge, telling them they will never be good enough, or activating their hyper-achiever in response, or any of the other Saboteurs they might harbor and now feed!

But what if we had the necessary self-command muscle to stop our Saboteurs and activate the Sage Perspective instead?

From the Sage Perspective, we can generate a gift or opportunity from  any situation or outcome!

In our example, we could choose to respond to the looming deadline for the important project that we would really love to win, in completely different ways. For example: 

  • We activate our Emphasize power, to recognize that this time will be a strain on our team members, so we put another project temporarily on hold for our people to be able to focus on this instead.
  • We Explore all the different facts and circumstances more deeply and with curiosity, without interpretation at first, so we can potentially find new or better ways for winning in this particular project.
  • We activate our Innovation capabilities, by asking “what’s a whole new way of doing this?”, when the old ways of approaching a situation or the more obvious ways will not suffice to win our project
  • Perhaps if multiple ways of winning the project and bringing home the deal are available, we activate our Navigate power to choose the path that ensures we stay consistent with our own values, instead of going down a quicker but potentially unethical route (which some of our Saboteurs would love us to take).
  • We call on our Activate power, when it is clear what course of action we want to take. This power allows us to move into pure action, without the procrastination, distraction, or interference that Saboteurs cause. Our action would be pure and unencumbered with anger, the need for revenge, disdain for the other person, bitterness, anxiety over outcome, or any of the other dramatic tendencies of our Saboteurs.
    We would simply and clearly think about the best strategy for getting our project win and proceed with the action necessary to make it happen. We would be more likely to succeed, as all your mental and emotional energy would be focused on getting the action right.

And while we have been thinking and acting from our Sage Perspective, we’ve been triggering the Sage response within the people on our team as well, creating a positive atmosphere and driving higher levels of employee engagement, better results, faster results!