The incredible power of self talk for leaders … 

Do powerful leaders have life-changing communication with themselves? Surrounded by those who depend on the leader’s strength, courage and resolution, with whom does a great leader keep council, confide in or chew over the alternatives? 

In order to understand the concept of leaders harnessing the power of self talk, let’s look at how athletes use it. Research into high performance competitive sports has shown that self-talk doesn’t just affect psychological processes such as concentration, but can also significantly affect technical performance. Talking about it, simply mixing thoughts with air, can produce far more powerful outcomes than the mental rehearsal and creative visualisation that many high performers in sport currently practise. So, do we need coaches to give a rousing pep talk at half time, when instead players could be self-talking all the time. It’s a bit of Tower of Babel scenario perhaps, but on the evidence of increasingly favourable research from Canada, for those leaders who are looking to improve their effectiveness, self talk is well worth looking into. 

In my personal experience with life threatening situations, I have absolutely no doubt of the value of self-talk, as I hope these true stories reveal. And if self talk is a powerful enough technique that can save lives, can it be also used to deal with challenging business situations?

Example 1: A cliff at Mount Arapiles 

On a cool winter’s day in western Victoria (Australia), I was climbing with a friend on Mt Arapiles, an extensive rockface known by climbers around the world as one of the finest open air climbing gyms in existence. Most of our climb, although thin on protection, had gone well. After wandering across a face, the route led straight up a deep fissure, wide enough for me to climb up and through. Once out of it, and onto the final face, my ascent stopped. In fact, it was here that my life changed. 

I could go no further. Looking up from where I lay, with an arm and a leg jammed tenuously into a crack in the rock face, I sensed this was the end. Not just the end of the climb, and as far as my limited ability would allow, but the end of my life. Four hundred feet of hard-won altitude above the ground, tantalisingly close to the finish, a huge boulder blocked any further ascent. 

My lead rope fell away unprotected down a bottomless chimney, too wet and smooth for me to place any protection as I ascended. Still on his belay stance on the smooth wall, my climbing partner balanced himself on a tiny ledge, waiting to follow. His was a very thin belay point and he was not tied onto much, I knew. If I fell now, I would drop the full 150 feet of the rope, plus the stretch. I would also smash myself badly against both rock walls as I shot through the dank chimney, probably ripping my partner straight off his poorly protected belay. 

I lay there sweating and shaking, as my arm, jammed into the crack, began to weaken. My mind was wracked with the turmoil. The reality of a pulverising and bloody fate seemed to be getting closer. Helpless, I could feel shockwaves of horror pulsing through my body. There was simply nowhere to go. I was out of options. 

Then, a strange thing happened: I started talking to myself. Out loud. As if it was someone else talking to me, coaching me. The Voice reassured me that we were on the right route, that others had succeeded in doing this climb before, that I was skilled and had plenty of strength left. The Voice told me that there must be a way through. Most importantly, The Voice said that if I stayed freaked out, I would die, and that right here, right now I had a choice. A choice! What words, what comfort, what music! 

The Voice told me to look up and start scanning, to find the obvious exit route “Look up and find the bloody obvious, Mate! And when you’ve found it, carefully work out how you’re going to go from here, move by move. Which bit of rock will you grasp first, second and third? Where will you put your left foot first, and next? Rehearse it in your mind a couple of times, and then stop thinking altogether. No thoughts at all. Have absolute faith. Focus, and just do it.”

The Voice was in authority. And I did what I was told. I forgot the hopelessness and created the plan. Strangely, my shaking and sweating just stopped. And all of a sudden I could see exactly where I needed to go. It was awful, but I made that choice. Not that I would merely have a go and hope for the best, but that I would launch out over a 400 foot sheer drop and work my way over that boulder. Not might, but would: and there’s a world of difference between those two words. And powerful outcomes: in this case, two men staying alive. 

When I let go of the security of my rock crack, and committed myself to the way ahead, I climbed not just through a few yards of overhanging rock, but through a whole belief system. I had talked myself into a new way of seeing the world. Just like that: a few short minutes was all it took. It was just words that I, as The Voice, spoke aloud, but history was diverted at that moment. And since then, the world I’ve faced has never been the same. 

Example 2: A mountain in Crete 

Second in a series of the power of self talk to create alternative outcomes

A thousand feet above a valley in central Crete, I made a decision. Instead of walking a few extra kilometres down off the ridge and doubling back to reach the campsite, I’d just jump over the snow cornice and retrace the steps I’d cut into the ice wall earlier that morning and go straight down. It was a decision that could have cost me my life, but as on a rock climb many years earlier, I was saved by self-talk. 

Setting up my tent late one afternoon in the snow of Crete’s central mountains, I looked towards the distant summit of Mt Ida (Psiloritis) and made a snap decision: tomorrow I would climb it. I had no idea how high it was, no map to guide me and no mountaineering gear except an ice axe, but my inner voice urged me to attempt the first solo winter ascent of ice-covered Mt Ida. 

Knowing that at three the following morning the wall of snow and ice would be solid, I crept out of the tent and in the darkness descended past the Cave of Zeus (where the God, disguised as a goat, deflowered his virgins), navigated through a boulder field and began climbing. Above me rose the first obstacle, two hundred feet of hard snow that merged into a hundred foot rock wall. With no crampons, I zigzagged upwards across the snow in the darkness, kicking steps with the edge of my frozen walking boots. 

The rock wall was unclimbable, but a deep shadow on the left indicated a route through crumbling buttresses to the upper ice field. The valley below was invisible now, and the ice above disappeared into mist. The surface was very hard, forcing me to cut steps all the way to the top: swing, hack, swing, hack and step up, the ledge no more than two inches wide. Then lock legs and swing and hack again; it was the same technique used for generations by pioneering Alpinists. But being alone, with no partner and his rope, one slip would have shot me straight down over the rock wall, airborne to the boulder field below. In the darkness, no one would have seen me fly or heard the thump as my carcass was mangled among the silent rocks. 

A thousand or more steps bore my weight until the mist thinned and finally the summit ridge appeared. I scrambled on my belly across the overhanging cornice and lay flat on the ridge, spent but exhilarated. I had done it, without crampons, rope or even a torch. Without a map I waited for the morning mist to lift, allowing me to follow steep ridges that led west. Three kilometres later the ice dropped away on all sides. Here was the summit, where legend tells us that Paris made his fatal judgement of the three beauties, won the right to another man’s wife, triggered the Trojan wars and launched Homer’s literary career. The sun was up and I felt utterly exhausted. After a ridiculous attempt at singing Waltzing Matilda, I gnawed on some Kendal mint cake and started back. 

The footprints stopped at the cornice and I had to make a choice. Perhaps it was bravado, or fatigue, or the need for a last adrenaline hit, but instead of taking the long track down I chose the icewall. Lying on my belly and kicking wildly, I found a purchase in the soft snow out of sight beneath me. My walking boots, previously frozen stiff, had softened in the sun and were now dangerously flexible. My face against the slope, I reached down with my axe and began cutting steps. Kicking my boots hard into the thin ice, it wasn’t long before I felt my toes bruising. 

Then, for the first time in my climbing experience, fear rose in my throat and I felt sick. Part of my mind was aware that this was a stupid choice of route, but another part of me was exhilarated by the challenge. And by now I’d had years of talking to myself, in the mountains and at sea. As my energy and confidence began to sap away, the rational me, The Voice, began to take over. 

Soon the icewall echoed with mumblings “Just kick down here, one step at a time. Keep a good grip on that axe. That’s the way. Nicely done. Bit harder, we don’t want to slip here.”</em>&nbsp;It was more than inner self-talk, that staple of winning sports psychology; this was external conversation – a loud and constant monologue. In any other setting I might have been regarded with suspicion; a bit whacko. In fact, a lot whacko. But the insistence now evident in The Voice would have indicated to any observer the level of fear driving me. And yet I recall that it all sounded so jolly, so rational and encouraging: someone in Oxford bags on his old-fashioned bicycle coaching me as I stroked down the river in my skull. 

Tired beyond measure, my jelly legs – boneless and wanting curl around and bend backwards – I was a gawky marionette unable to lock its knees in place. Inwardly I must have been scared shitless, but outwardly the calm Voice just kept up its patter of reassuring instruction ‘do this; do that; oops, never mind, do it better next time; well done old boy’.

Three quarters of the way down the upper icefield, the whole wall began to move beneath me as if it was beginning to avalanche. The assertive Voice stopped me dead in my tracks, heart thumping and lungs gulping – barely able to keep up. This morning’s solid icewall was now just a thin crust of ice covering a deep layer of very old snow, degenerated into icy ball bearings. Looking back, I saw that my boots, kicking right through the ice crust, had created a fracture line across the face. And worse, I was way off course from the route needed to regain the safety of the gully. 

The Voice spoke again, and slowly, very slowly and ever so carefully, I crept left back across the icefield, above the rock band, and finally slipped down into the exit gully. Once inside its darkness, I discovered with relief that the verglas covering the rocks was still intact, and hard enough for me to hack wide steps into it. The Voice congratulated me on being careful and gave permission for me to glissade down the lower half of the gully. 

A hundred feet down I emerged onto the lower ice field, still in shadow, and found the surface hard enough to hold my steps. But I was almost unable to control my legs. The Voice spoke firmly to my glutinous thighs, asking for a special effort to get closer to the boulders at the bottom “Just a little more vigilance, not far to go now; almost there; can’t give in now”. As I neared them The Voice told me to turn around and face the world. Joyously, I ran the last few yards. At the bottom I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and stumbled, deliriously happy, the last mile to my tent and collapsed. 

Conclusions: -

Without self-talk, the voice of rational strength and good sense that saw beyond my fear and instructed my every action – even when I felt well past my physical limits – I would have fallen to pieces emotionally and probably ended up another mountaineering statistic. So if such positive control, under physically draining and emotionally terrifying circumstances, can be achieved by simply talking to yourself, how much power is there to be exploited during other less dangerous situations? 

What is actually happening inside the mind when you use self-talk, and can anyone do it? Does it need special training to achieve self-preservation or heightened sporting prowess just by saying so? Or is it instinctive, an innate yet long forgotten function of the amygdala? And is this one of the secrets to strong and effective leadership in complex, chaotic and highly and uncertain times, such as we face today?