Success depends on many attributes: passion, resilience, energy, talent, and the willingness to go the extra mile, to name a few. But lately I’ve been reading about another one that plays a key role: grit.
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance found that grit, which is a combination of self-control and stick-to-it-iveness, is a more reliable predictor of success than talent or I.Q. — and the best part is that you don’t have to be born with it. Anyone can learn how to develop grit. In fact, the earlier you develop healthy levels of it, the more successful you’ll be.
Remember that famous Stanford University experiment when researchers studying delayed gratification put four-year-olds in a room, gave each of them a marshmallow and promised them another, but only if they could hold off eating that one for 20 minutes, and then the researchers left the room? Some kids held out; others caved. The researchers followed their progress into adolescence and found that the kids who had the mental toughness to delay gratification were better adjusted, more dependable, and scored higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
So what does all this have to do with leadership? A lot, as it turns out. For one thing, grit requires focus, which you need in spades to succeed as a leader, and research suggests that focus is actually much more important than talent in determining how successful you’ll be. (Talented people can get away with doing the minimum for a while, but that strategy only takes you so far.) And —as the four-year-olds who resisted shoving that marshmallow in their mouths no doubt intuitively understood —grit involves sacrifice: having the ability to tell yourself that foregoing something today will pay off down the road lies at its essence.
When you’re gritty, you’re committed to staying on course until you succeed. When you’re gritty, you’re willing to do stuff that terrifies you, and keep going even when you’re unsure what the result will be. When you’re gritty, you focus on your goals, stay positive and refuse to let obstacles stand in your way. Rather, you look for ways to get around them.
I could tell you many stories about how having grit helped me succeed as a leader. But I prefer to tell you a story about how grit helped me in a more personal way. After I knew for certain that my husband would never emerge from his coma, I needed something to help me carry on. Otherwise, I’d plunge into despair, and despair was not an option: I had four little kids to raise. I hit upon the idea of asking the hospital for permission to bring my husband home for Sunday visits.
If I could bring him home on Sundays, the kids could spend time with their dad without interruption to their lives, I’d get a break from the hospital, and for one day a week we’d have some degree of normalcy as a family. I fully expected the authorities to say no when I raised the idea. If you ask people to try something that’s never been done before, they’ll almost always tell you why it can’t be done. Saying no is easy. Saying yes takes much more effort. And at first, no was the answer the staff gave me.
They had legitimate safety concerns. Also, preparing Pat to leave the hospital involved a lot of extra work for them. But I was determined to turn a no into a yes because yes was the answer I needed. So I refused to take no for an answer. Fortunately, I’d had experience bringing skeptics around at work. I agreed to meet all of their medical requirements, promised to stick to a set schedule every week, addressed all their other concerns about why the plan couldn’t work, and reminded them how much bringing Pat home would mean to us as a family
Eventually, they agreed. Pat’s first visit home went off without a hitch. For the next nine months he came home virtually every Sunday. Sunday became an oasis in my week. The kids would come flying downstairs and say “Hi dad” on their way out the door. Sometimes I wheeled him out to the patio. Seeing him sitting outside with the sun on his face made my heart soar. Having him home was bittersweet too, of course, since his presence was a constant reminder of everything we’d lost. But the sweetness far outweighed the sorrow. For those few hours a week his presence allowed us feel whole as a family.
Without grit, those visits would never have happened.