What inspires us to follow a CEO, founder or thought leader? Certainly, there is a toughness, particularly in the face of adversity, that can encourage us to do the same and elevate our efforts.
In other words, toughness or grit can be inspirational. In this short article, I want to share how grit is essential and that it can be developed by anyone who desires to succeed as a leader whether in a small business or a start-up destined to spectacular growth.
Eight years ago in 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. This happened at precisely the same time I founded a start-up software company…that we ultimately sold in 2021, and richly rewarded our investors and team. During those eight years, while we grew sales and enhanced the product, I survived seven surgeries, five courses of radiation, and months and months of chemo. I’ve been asked, “How did you do it?” Honestly, I’m not certain looking back. All I know is that I just kept showing up, and that perseverance, as one of my people once told me, “took grit.”
Grit is an essential character trait for leaders. The question is “Are we born with grit, or is it something we can learn?” Like much else in life, the answer is, some of both. In fact, researchers and philosophers, including Angela Duckworth, William James, K.E Ericson, and Aristotle, would agree with this assessment.
Let’s start with the word itself…grit. It’s a little hard to define precisely. In fact it’s one of those words, where you know it when you see it… as in, that person has grit. Here’s the dictionary definition.
Indomitable spirit; stubborn courage; brave perseverance; pluck in the face of adversity.
The day I was diagnosed was a day like any other. I was scheduled to get on a flight that afternoon to meet with one of our customers. My wife told me to stay home. But I went despite the way I felt after getting that awful news. As you might imagine, I was reeling with disbelief, fear and anger. But I felt there was work to be done and promises to be kept…so I went.
That first night on the road, unable to sleep, I had time to think about the hell I was about to descend into. I was scared. And in a conversation with myself, I decided that in order to function, deal with the treatments and run the business, I would never open myself to self-pity and ask the question, “Why me?” I decided instead to focus on asking a better question, “What’s next?”…as in, what must I do next to survive?
It’s easy to indulge in “why me” thinking when adversity, especially undeserved adversity, strikes. But the only thing “why me” thinking produces is a sense of victimization that leads to unfocused action and decision-making. And that becomes contagious as people can see it and feel it. On the other hand, “what’s next” thinking promotes focus, clarity, courage, hope and action. It takes grit to deal with adversity. And leaders who respond that way encourage others to act likewise, and inspire them to challenge themselves and become part of the solution. Specifically, many might say; “Heck if he can pull himself together and come to work, then why can’t I?” And this happens. I know it does because I watched this exact process happen in my company, with my people. We grew closer, more focused, and everyone worked harder.
So, what can any of us do to develop grit so we can exercise when adversity strikes – especially during early and start-up stage businesses?
Best Practices for “Grit in Leadership”
I was surprised when searching online for “grit in leadership” that the topic attracted a good deal of thinking by researchers. In general, the research identified five traits that were practiced by “gritty” people. What was also clear, as I discovered, is a direct causal connection between these traits and inspirational leadership as experienced by everyone on a team. The five characteristics of grit below are based on Character Lab Founder Angela Duckworth’s findings and her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” along with others.
- Resilience: One of the most important characteristics of grit for inspirational leaders is the ability to act and communicate with optimism, creativity, and confidence despite setbacks. This attribute helps empower others to “keep the faith” and stand up under performance pressures.
- Courage: Another chief predictor of leadership success is the ability to manage fear of failure. Inspirational leaders seem to have a clear understanding of the upside and downside risks of decisions. This calculus enables them to be decisive and act despite the risks.
- Conscientiousness: Tenacity and the ability to work tirelessly by focusing on doing a good job and completing the tasks at hand is another hallmark of inspirational leaders. This work ethic and determination appear to be contagious in followers.
- Perseverance: The ability to demonstrate and maintain intensity, direction, and the duration of one’s exertions in the pursuit a long-term goal is an essential element of grit, and has the effect of building team spirit, pride and fellowship.
- Excellence: Gritty people don’t seek perfection; they instead strive for excellence. This approach favors a bias action versus getting stuck in over-analysis. One of my favorite sayings that I often repeated to my people was…“Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
Adversity is a constant. So to help others understand how to develop grit as a leader, I’ve documented my personal and business experiences, lessons learned and success tips in my recently published book, “One Hit Wonder: The Real-Life Adventures of an Average Guy and the Lessons He Learned Along the Way.”
The way leaders respond to adversity and pressure can either be a source of inspiration that drives success, or become a breeding ground for fear and uncertainty. And while entrepreneurs and managers can’t control what happens as they start and grow a business; they can control the way they act and lead from the front.