Stanley McChrystal is a retired United States Army General. Former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has described him as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I (have) ever met”. His last assignment before retiring was as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.
Today, McChrystal heads the McChrystal Group, a leadership and management consultancy composed of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors. He has given an inspiring TED Talk and is the author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.
I recently listened to an interesting podcast in which McChrystal had a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Ferriss that covered tactical and psychological lessons from combat, the development of mental toughness, leadership and other issues. The podcast generated a number of questions from listeners. As a result, McChrystal did a second, shorter podcast in which he answered some of those questions.
While all of the questions, and McChrystal’s answers, were interesting, I was particularly intrigued by this one:
What are three practices from the military that civilians can use to help develop mental toughness?
Mental toughness, or grit, is an essential requirement for success. Nobody goes through life without failures and setbacks. However, the way in which we respond to failures, setbacks, disappointments, loss, etc. has a major effect on what happens afterwards. Having mental toughness helps us weather the storms so that our progress is not derailed.
McChrystal’s three recommendations are easy to understand—not so easy to do.
1. Push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of. You’ll find new depth inside yourself.
2. Put yourself (and groups) through (shared) difficulties and discomfort. When you have been through a difficult environment or situation, you feel more strongly about that which to you are committed.
3. Create some fear and overcome it. It creates resiliency.
When you think about it, each of the three recommendations involves getting out of your comfort zone (physically, mentally, professionally, etc.). And, depending on the situation, you might end up doing all three at once. For example, if you put yourself in a difficult situation, you might be afraid and you might have to push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of to overcome the challenge.
But McChrystal’s advice is sound. People experience their greatest personal growth when then move towards the things that scare them instead of running from them.
You can apply McChrystal’s recommendations to many aspects of your life, including public speaking. For many people, having to speak in public is uncomfortable, frightening or worse. Even experienced speakers can find it uncomfortable to speak in front of certain audiences, or on a new topic, or in front of a larger audience than they are used to.
How, concretely, can you act on these recommendations? Below are some ideas:
- If you have no public speaking experience or are very afraid of speaking in public, take a course or join an organization like Toastmasters. You will get experience speaking in a safe and supportive environment.
- Participate in a speech contest. The farther you advance, the bigger the audience and the more pressure you have to deal with.
- Speak at conferences on matters related to your field of expertise.
- Volunteer to give corporate presentations to your colleagues, the Board of Directors or prospective clients.
- Give a team presentation with some colleagues.
- Give a guest lecture at a university.
- Give a speech at a wedding reception.
- Take an improvisation class.
- Apply to speak at a TEDx event.
Ultimately, the more you challenge yourself with different speaking situations, the more comfortable you will become. And, when you face a setback—you forget part of your speech; the talk falls flat; the equipment doesn’t work—as is bound to happen if you speak often enough, you will be able to learn from the experience, bounce back and move on. In short, you’ll become a better speaker.
Applying Stanley McChrystal’s advice when it comes to public speaking will not only make you a better speaker, it will improve your self-esteem, your self-confidence and your resiliency. And that is something that will help you with any challenge that you face.