Mental Fitness – A Strength of Leadership

Steinbeiser Dr. Michael Ullmann works with managers and leading sportspeople on mental strengths

Attempts to improve mental fitness often fail because people don’t have a starting point in terms of tangible numbers or values: If you don’t know how you score in terms of mental fitness, you can’t know which areas to work on. The pioneers in this area are professional sportspeople, many of whom work with mental coaches, psychologists, and experts in teamwork. Dr. Michael Ullmann, freelance project manager at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Sales Analytics, has been applying his experience in working with professional sportspeople to managers at companies.

Dr. Michael Ullmann (right) in front of 250 business leaders discussing “what business can learn from sport” alongside Fritz Keller, President of the German Football Association, and Winfried Küppers, consultant to board executives and politicians.


Mental fitness is crucial in top-level sport and often makes the difference between winning and losing. The same applies to companies. The mental fitness of the workforce is a decisive factor for business performance. This is something Steinbeis entrepreneur Winfried Küppers will certify to. As an advisor to company directors and politicians he knows what it’s like behind the scenes at companies. “At the moment with the Covid-19 pandemic, and later, I believe there are two issues that dictate the success of companies. The first is helping employees to recognize their own mental state and introduce the right measures; the other is ensuring managers are in a position to foster the right mental attitude within their teams.” This is because people have changed after their experiences in recent months and this is having a direct impact on their companies.

Adjusting to the new reality is also a psychological challenge. But companies can do something to help their employees deal with these challenges. This will also make them more effective. At the moment, such issues are still mainly the domain of psychologists and mental coaches, who work intensively on clients’ condition on an individual basis. But there are also an increasing number of software programs, apps, and algorithms taking on this responsibility, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years.

The scientific basis

How do you actually ascertain your level of mental fitness, and what are your strengths and weaknesses? The way to do this is to use diagnostics based on an assessment of subconscious and involuntary processes in the brain. One example of this is the color association method based on the scientific theory of Swiss psychologist Max Lüscher and Carl Jung. The underlying thinking this technique is based on is that colors are involuntarily associated with certain experiences, and this results in an association process on an unconscious level. This connection is used for diagnostic purposes.

Until now, it has not been possible to use simple digital evaluation methods to assess such tests, because people tend to think too consciously when faced with difficult tasks, so the colors they select are based on subconscious motivations but a conscious choice. Psychologists recognize this right away, but until now computers did not. In the meantime, however, there are highly complex algorithms capable of assessing such tests on an extremely high level and this relieves mental coaches of tedious evaluation work. These digital tests are used widely in professional sport because they are able to quickly determine who is in a strong mental state and burning to win on the day of a competition – and who isn’t.

Learning from professional sport

Michael Ullmann has conducted scores of diagnostic assessments in his role as mental coach of the German ice hockey champions and the German national ice hockey team, providing many detailed insights that subsequently led to significant improvements in players’ condition, often surprisingly quickly. His techniques work in a variety of areas, from optimizing the onboarding process (integration into the team) to improving the mental stability of younger players making the transition from the junior squad to the professional squad, solving issues inhibiting performance, improving mental recovery, overcoming mental barriers, and raising motivation and the drive to perform at times when players are under extreme pressure.

Ullmann has been conducting an increasing number of tests in recent years in his capacity as a freelance Steinbeis project manager, especially with teams of managers and people working in sales. Summarizing his experience until now, he comes to a clear conclusion: improvements are sometimes even greater than in professional sport. At one IT company, he quickly ascertained that just being able to go through the assessment was already valued by staff. For many, it was the first time their actual mental well-being and previously unknown strengths and weaknesses had been understood. Managers saw unimagined opportunities open to them. Teamwork improved within weeks, management communication was perceived by all parties as much more constructive and conducive to achieving goals, and efficiency improved.

At one mechanical engineering firm, the Steinbeis expert succeeded in significantly improving the atmosphere at the company by applying his employee satisfaction techniques. Staff started talking about the things that really mattered to them. This pulled the people together as a team at a time when they were working from home and able to spend much less time together, meaning that individuals had to rely on their own resourcefulness.

Ullmann currently uses an algorithm to run an initial evaluation of the test. A mental coach then talks to assessment participants about their results, although it’s possible in the next five to ten years that artificial intelligence will take care of this part of the process.

“There’s no such thing as the ideal manager or the ideal way to manage, so there’s no such thing as the ideal profile. Every manager has to manage in a way that plays to their strengths. So there’s no such thing as an ideal scenario, even if it can be shown that some patterns are more favorable than others,” believes Ullmann. What’s crucial is how people deal with their own personal traits and what they do with them. Color association diagnostics and the profiles they allow you to create provide support in building on and consciously playing to individual strengths, recognizing and changing weaknesses, or at least developing constructive strategies for dealing with them. In the same way that head team coaches can use this assessment technique to educate their trainers and skippers, one of the tasks of company executives is to empower managers to do the same. In doing so, just like professional sportspeople, companies put themselves in a position to perform to the best of their ability.


Dr. Michael Ullmann (author)
Freelance project manager
Steinbeis Consulting Center Sales Analytics (Hilzingen)