Effective Leadership and Grit

“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela

“Grit is living life like a marathon.” –  Angela Lee Duckworth

According to psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, grit is a crucial character quality that allows us to take a longer-term view of life so that we might better navigate the inevitable ups and downs.  Successfully navigating these variances in fortunes will for most come down to the presence of a growth mindset (see previous two posts) and grit.

Many people make resolutions or other commitments to change at the start of each new year.  It may be to lose weight, live healthier, engage in a new hobby, or pursue an opportunity for advancement or growth.  We develop grand plans and a sense of vision for a better life, yet for many the burdens of daily living get in the way of achieving that vision. Grit is a key factor in following through on these plans and the vision behind them, and no where is grit more evident – or not evident – than when we encounter set-backs, obstacles, or difficulties in achieving them.  In view of such set-backs, do we see ourselves as failing or as still waiting to succeed?  How we answer to this question reveals much about our level of grit.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth, a researcher, MacArthur Fellowship winner, and TED talk phenomenon, identifies grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” This firmness of character, indomitable spirit, indefatigable fortitude is the underlying source for the perseverance and passion to accomplish short-term and long-term goals.  Grit is not about the outcomes or the end-game; it is about the attitudes and habits of mind that will not allow one to stop in processing toward completion and accomplishment.

Grit is related to how much you can inspire yourself, maintain your passion, and sustain your motivation regardless of circumstances.  Think of Colin O’Brady, who is at this time doing a 900-mile trek across Antarctica and the South Pole, alone, on foot, with no resupply points, while pulling a nearly 300-pound ski sled.  For the planned 70-day journey, O’Brady must pull his sled for an average of 13 miles each day (more due to rest days), ascending then descending over 7500 feet in elevation across the Antarctic plateau.  He is walking alone in an environment where the average daily temperatures are in the range of -400F.  (Update: O’Brady succeeded, arriving several days ahead of schedule.  True grit)

For the rest of us mere mortals, grit is more likely to be the trait of sticking to a task until it is done, whether that takes a day, a week, a year, or a season of life.  It is the motivational drive that keeps us on difficult tasks for sustained periods of time. Is our level of grit something we are born with and therefore hold in fixed amounts?  Is it a resource that we deplete over time?  Or is it like a growth mindset, something we can grow, develop, refine and renew as we journey through life?

My take on grit, which agrees with Duckworth and with Carol Dweck of growth mindset research fame, is that it is a character quality that can be developed, strengthened, and renewed continuously.  Grit is based upon a person’s beliefs about self, one’s goals, feelings regarding one’s social connectedness, and one’s skills in self-regulation. The application of these beliefs, goals, connections and self-regulation skills will take practice and dedication over time. They will yield positive impacts on every aspect of life.

Thus grit, as Duckworth defines it, is having passion and perseverance, sticking to long-term goals and having the emotional stamina to keep going, when others have given up.  This is obviously important if we define life as Duckworth does, a marathon and not a sprint.  In the presence of grit, one sees the one’s self as capable of ongoing growth and development, and sees setbacks, difficulties, and even failures as temporary impediments and opportunities for making progress in new ways.  Following are four characteristics of “gritty” people.

Gritty people approach opportunity, setback, and even failure as simply practice.   They are always moving toward growth, refinement, and betterment, learning as they go, embracing feedback and criticism, and using good and bad experiences as springboards for growth and progress.

Gritty people are driven by larger purposes.  They live for purposes larger than the baseline of comfort, ease, or risk-free living.  They pursue their lives and projects with perseverance and passion, with firmness of character and indomitable spirit

Gritty people live with hope.  They know that setbacks and failures happen, and that embracing these as opportunities to learn, improve, and then get back up again influence success in future attempts. Hope is expressed not in consistent success but in not giving up.

Gritty people devote time to growth, strengthening, and pursuing their goals with perseverance and passion.  They dedicate the time necessary to meet their objectives, to practice, learn, and stay in the game.

“Achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a long-term goal.” – Angela Lee Duckworth

The next post will explore strategies to increase grit.

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