Ask an Expert August 2018

Ask an Expert

Q: Why do we need grit to make extraordinary things happen?

A: Challenge is the opportunity for greatness. In every Personal-Best Leadership Experience that Barry Posner and I have gathered for our books and studies, challenge defined the context. People do their best when the conditions stretch them to reach beyond business-as-usual solutions.

Successfully handling challenging situations requires, among other things, grit. Angela Duckworth has done the seminal work in this area, and in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance she defines grit as passion and persistence in pursuit of a purpose.

“Grit,” Angela says, “is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but also for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Grit is that firmness of spirit, that unyielding determination that is essential in dealing with a challenge, and it “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” It’s not unusual for would-be authors or aspiring musicians, for example, to have a burst of inspiration, begin writing a chapter, or chords and lyrics, and then give up when they start to hit roadblocks or hurdles. The people who tough it out and work through those problems end up with interesting—and finished—books and songs. This is just as true for the leaders we studied. Despite the adversities they encountered, they persisted because they strongly believed in what they were doing.

Having studied the impact of grit in a variety of settings, Angela and her colleagues convincingly demonstrate that people with the most grit achieve the most positive outcomes. For example, researchers have found that those who score high on grit are more likely to persist in a variety of commitments than those who score low. Grittier soldiers in training for the elite Army Special Operations Forces were more likely to complete the course, and grittier salespeople were more likely to stay in their jobs longer. Grittier high school students were more likely to graduate, and grittier men were more likely to stay married. In challenging public school settings, novice teachers in Teach for America with the most grit see greater increases in the academic gains of their students than their less gritty teacher counterparts see. In addition, spelling bee contestants who rated high on the grit scale were consistently the champions. In other words, grit is not unique to any particular domain of work; it’s applicable everywhere.

It’s essential to note, however, that grit is not the same thing as persistence. Passion and purpose are equally important elements of grit. You have to care deeply about the outcome and why you are pursuing it. Without a strong desire to achieve something that matters deeply to you, you won’t be able to persist in struggling to attain it. And here’s the good news: we’ve found in our research, using Angela’s grit scale, that those leaders who score high on grit, compared to those who score low, are significantly more likely to demonstrate The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.


Jim Kouzes
is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also the recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the most recent Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert), fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.

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