What Leaders Can Learn From Mr. Olympia

Imagine that you’re about to interview for the job of your dreams. Or that you’re about to give a high-stakes presentation. Or take an important test. Or simply focus on getting a few things done in the next hour. 

What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself in your mind? 

If you’re anything like 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, you’re telling yourself, “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” 

Coleman is widely considered one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, which is impressive enough, but what I find compelling is how he talked. In particular, how he talked to himself. 

You can find plenty of evidence of this on YouTube, and in addition to being interesting, it’s often entertaining. He’s funny. He’d be kicked out of Planet Fitness in about 0.3 seconds. 

And Coleman’s “self-talk,” as it’s called in the psychology literature, is easy to spot because he often does it aloud. 

When approaching a massive weight that he was about to lift, he’d say things like:

  • “Yeah, buddy!”
  • “Nothin’ but a peanut.”
  • “Light weight!”
  • “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.”

And then he’d go lift something about as heavy as my car. 

But what’s really compelling is how our internal monologue—our self-talk, or our “mindchatter” as my friend Bill Gentry of the Center for Creative Leadership calls it—influences our performance as leaders and managers. 

A few years ago, I was part of a research team that specifically looked at how executives talked to themselves. In our study, we analyzed a few hundred letters that senior executives wrote to themselves at the conclusion of a leadership development program. We then took our ratings of their self-talk in those letters and analyzed how it compared with how their own bosses and followers rated their leadership. Lo and behold, the best leaders had self-talk patterns that were positive, reflective and constructive in nature. 

The ineffective leaders, on the other hand, tended to have pessimistic, negative self-talk. They also tended to report being more stressed than their positive self-talking, effective counterparts. 

Much of the scientific research on the outcomes of self-talk comes from the world of sport psychology. And the findings in that realm tend to support what we found in the business world—positive self-talk is productive and useful. 

So what might self-talk “look like?” For that, let’s turn to a study that constructed a measure of self-talk for athletes. They categorized self-talk into eight groups as listed below.

  • Psych Up: Let’s go, Give 100%, Do your best
  • Anxiety Control: Relax, Calm down, No stress
  • Confidence: I feel strong, I can make it, I believe in me
  • Instruction: Concentrate, Focus on your technique, Focus on what you need to do right now
  • Worry: I’m wrong again, I cannot concentrate, I am not as good as the others
  • Disengagement: I want to stop, I want to get out of here, I am fed up
  • Somatic Fatigue: I am tired, Today I “suck,” My body is not in good condition
  • Irrelevant Thoughts: I am thirsty, What will I do later tonight, I want to take a shower

If you truly reflect upon your own thoughts, I bet you’d be able to find examples from most if not all of these categories. We all “talk” to ourselves. The question is whether we’re positive and constructive or negative and destructive in our patterns of self-talk. 

Regardless of whether we’re trying to do our best running a meeting or preparing for a tough conversation at work, it behooves us to be mindful of our self-talk. Literally forcing ourselves to use positive patterns of self-talk helps change our attitude and our mood, allowing us to do our best. 

Because no matter what situations we face in this crazy life, we always have control over how we react and our resulting attitude. And a big part of that changing our attitude is controlling what we allow to go on in our minds.

So the next time you face a tough management moment, I encourage you to first stop and think, “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.comwww.agilityconsulting.com and www.strategicagilityinstitute.com