At the beginning of my career, I was a percussion instructor- I taught high school kids to play drums. There were some students who effortlessly translated music from the page to their hands, but the students that really caught my attention were the kids who had little natural talent but worked and struggled and- through force of will- became amazing musicians. Those never-give-up kids had something special- grit.
Grit is resilience in the face of adversity, perseverance despite the odds, and a get-it-done attitude in service to long-term goals. Grit is the ability to get back up when life knocks us down, which happens to all of us from time to time. Grit is not just working hard (although grit requires hard work) and it’s not just shaking off failure (although believing that failure is not permanent is an important part of grit). Grit is sticking to one’s long-term goals, despite failures, setbacks, and challenges.
I believe the successful people- and successful leaders- have grit. To paraphrase Brene Brown quoting Teddy Roosevelt: successful leaders are willing to get into the arena and fight for what they believe. And when they get knocked down, leaders with grit get back up.
Humans have been interested in perseverance, resilience, and grit since before the Greeks and studies have shown the positive effects of such traits. Want to win a national spelling bee? Have the grit to practice and work harder than the other competitors.
Developing grit is another story. My grandfather would have said the way to develop grit is through living hard: hard work, hard drinking, hard choices. Of course, he spent a lot of time getting stitched up, getting dragged out of ditches, and getting picked up off the floor, so maybe he’s not the best example. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies grit in students, argues that the best way to develop grit is to focus on developing grit as a character trait and showing students the power of deliberate practice (i.e. practice until you’ve mastered a skill, then keep practicing). I believe the same technique applies to leadership- we have to focus first on who the leader is (character), then focus on what the leader does (practice).
Unlike world-class athletes or musicians, we typically don’t start developing the character of leaders or practice leadership skills until we are adults (and then it’s only a few hours a year in some mandatory HR training class). It should be no surprise that we don’t have enough leaders with the grit to create ethical, high performing, engaging workplaces. If I have a choice between a so-so employee with a passion for leading, the willingness to practice, and the grit to get it done, and a naturally talented employee who is vaguely committed to leading others, I’ll pick the employee with grit every time.