Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Is Grit the Key to Being a Successful Leader?

While doing some research for a presentation I’ll be giving later this summer, I came upon a study which looked at determining which trait plays a key role in the achievement of long-term goals. After reading a few more studies that dealt with this subject, I noticed that there were some interesting correlations which could be drawn to the field of leadership.

Dr. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent the last few years looking at what unlocks the potential in some of us to become high achievers. In a recent study, Duckworth looked at how different approaches used by students to prepare for a national spelling bee competition impacted the degree of success they achieved, as well as the common trait it revealed amongst the high achievers.

Duckworth et al surveyed 190 finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and categorized the techniques they used to improve their spelling skills into one of the following three categories – leisure reading, being quizzed by others, or engaging in deliberate practice by studying vocabulary on their own.

Among the three techniques surveyed for this study, deliberate practice was ranked by the students as being the least enjoyable and requiring the most effort when compared to being quizzed or reading for fun. However, this didn’t stop some students from using deliberate practice as their key approach for preparing for the spelling bee. In terms of the competition results, it was found that the students who used deliberate practice to develop their spelling skills performed far better than the others.

The researchers analyzed their results to find out why some of these students chose deliberate practice to prepare for the competition and found that they all shared the psychological trait the researchers referred to as grit.

Duckworth defines grit as having the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

In the case of this study, what differentiated the kids who scored high for grit from the rest was not simply the amount of hours they spent studying, but also the kind of study preparation they did. Specifically, they didn’t work on practising the words they already knew. Instead, they focused on the words they didn’t know and spending their time on mastering how to spell them.

In other words, those individuals who scored high for grit recognized that the key to success was not focusing solely on what they knew, but on working to improve on those gaps which are found in their particular skill set.

The fact that these “gritty” children also chose the hardest, but most effective technique for improving their spelling skills reinforced Duckworth’s previous findings regarding the relationship between grit and high achievement. Namely, that high achievers are not just persistent when faced with obstacles in their path, but are persistent in general when it comes to achieving a particular goal or task.

Although these studies were performed to derive a better understanding of what would be the best way for children to improve a particular skill, there are some practical considerations that can be drawn in terms of leadership development as well.

Indeed, Duckworth’s research serves as a potent reminder that to be successful in serving in the role of leadership requires a commitment toward developing and refining your skills, brought on by an intentional awareness of what deficiencies exist within your leadership toolkit.

Her findings also reinforce the fact that to be successful as a leader requires defining a vision or goal which doesn’t waver or get side-tracked by distractions in your surroundings, unanticipated events, or even failures.  After all, one of the key attributes the researchers found among high achievers is their ability to filter out distractions so that they remain focused on reaching a particular goal in spite of what’s going on around them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership, there’s still a tendency of viewing it as something that people have a natural affinity for; that you either have what it takes to be a leader or you don’t. While this assumption can limit the number of people who might be considered for leadership positions, the other problem that this can create is the mistaken impression that ‘natural born leaders’ don’t need to practice their craft in order to help them develop and evolve the necessary skills for effective leadership.

Then again, given the sample population that was used for this study, it’s easy to presume that the grit trait is naturally found in talented individuals, if not also being one of the cornerstones from which their ‘natural’ talent is derived.

However, both this study and a previous one Duckworth did involving first-year cadets at the West Point Military academy revealed that those who scored highest for grit were not the most talented. In fact, the researchers found that individuals who were highly talented were not necessarily going to be high achievers because they lack the focused passion and perseverance that individuals with grit have.

In the end, I think this is not so much an either/or equation than it is an if/then one. For some people, the role of leadership is something that they not only show an aptitude for, but which those around them are willing to see them take on because of their ability to enable others to reach a shared goal.  However, this doesn’t mean that they will not require some form of deliberate practice to address the current limitations found within their ability to lead.

And then there are those who at first glance might seem to be the unlikeliest of candidates for a leadership position.  And yet, thanks to their drive and perseverance to work at and be coached on building the requisite skills, can become just as capable in leading others.

In his play “Twelfth Night”, Shakespeare wrote:

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

Perhaps the same thing can also be said about leadership; that it’s not so much whether one shows an obvious talent to lead others – or whether one requires some form of internal drive to push ahead in developing the necessary skills –  that will determine the level of success that can be achieved. Instead, it’s simply a matter of understanding our true selves and using whatever experiences, resources and/or abilities we have at our disposal to be the best leader we can be for our team.

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  1. On April 18th, 2011 at 9:35 AM davidburkus said:

    I'm fascinated by grit as a construct. Moreso interesting in it's implications. However, making the jump to leadership is difficult. One may have grit but leadership development is likely most dependent upon organizations giving people the chance to practice leadership. If that isn't done, what does grit matter?

    Perhaps those developing leaders who aren't given in-organization practice opportunities but rather serve on non-profit boards and in other wars practice their leadership could be found to have more grit. That sounds like an interesting study to me.

  2. On April 18th, 2011 at 11:12 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi David,

    Considering Duckworth's findings that those with grit display perseverance and long-term focus to reach a specific goal, I would assume that the lack of opportunity to practice and develop their leadership skills in-house would be seen simply as an obstacle to that goal. And as such, I would expect these individuals would employ some type of work-around similar to what you describe.

    Again, looking at the children who ranked high for grit, in preparing for the spelling bee, they had no problem taking the hard route because they saw it as being the best option for reaching their goal. Sure, it required more effort and was less enjoyable, but these 'grittier' kids were clearly less concerned with the short-term challenges as they were with how their efforts today would impact their long-term goals. As such, it stands to reason that adults who score high for grit would have little concern or issue with having to take a less linear path to reach their objectives as well.

    In any case, I agree with you David, that this would be a fascinating study to see how grit impacts the route leadership potentials take to develop their craft if opportunities don't present themselves within their organization.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  3. On April 28th, 2011 at 7:20 AM Dave said:

    I agree with you 100%, but I would think that the perception of leadership may be most anchored and familiarized in people at a very young age too. While opportunities in adult life can provide positions of more substantial leadership and responsibilities; I do feel it is something which can be to a degree instilled by parenting. Just my two cents

  4. On April 28th, 2011 at 5:44 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Dave,

    As a parent, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, I find there are many strong parallels being parenting and leadership as the goal in both should not be to simply direct others to do your bidding. Instead, it should be to provide opportunities for them to grow and become self-sufficient contributors who you can slowly transfer some of the responsibilities you had onto them.

    Thanks for adding your two cents to the discussion, Dave.

  5. On April 19th, 2011 at 3:52 AM Syed Moiz said:

    Very good post, 'Grit' as defined and mentioned in leadership aspect makes this post a very good reading.

    Leaders are born, evolved and matured with a series of expereinces they encounter, ability to learn some thing known is of no benefit on contrary learning the unknown will help a lot as it will need extra effort to get the desired benefit.

  6. On April 19th, 2011 at 11:08 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Moiz. It's interesting how with most roles or functions in a society or organization, we naturally expect people to have to learn the ropes and be offered support and guidance before they're left to their own devices. And yet, with leadership we tend to look at it as being something that people will just naturally take to like a fish does to water.

    What I found Duckworth's research does is reinforce the reality that to be successful in leadership requires a drive to not only be in a constant learning mode, but have the persistence to keep working at improving oneself as a leader, regardless of whether things are going well or not.

  7. On April 19th, 2011 at 1:41 PM Laura Hunter said:

    Hi Tanveer,
    Yes, yes! Great post! I absolutely believe that hard work and determination will take you further than natural talent every time. I know that all of my heros and role models achieved their success in life through sheer hard work. I also know a few bright talented people who just don't have the drive and discipline to utilize their talent.

    Personally I consider myself as someone who has no natural talent in any area. When I began teaching and later when I began working with horses I was told in both cases that I had no ability and would not succeed. However I do have the ability to focus and work my butt off to achieve my goals. Now many years later I am known and respected professionally in both fields – but I am still working to improve my skills. I consider myself a beginner in the field of leadership but I know that I have the potential to be successful because I am willing to put in the effort.

    I have no patience with people looking for easy. When I hear the whine, "Oh you make it look so easy" I want to smack them upside the head. Than I want to hand them Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Outliers, and tell them to come back in 10,000 hours.

  8. On April 19th, 2011 at 1:58 PM Jon said:

    The mindset of having "grit" in being a successful leader has merit. A leadership mindset requires having the stamina to work through all sorts of life and business situations. Keeping the vision of your business and/or your life while continuing to move forward is where grit comes into play.

    Thanks for your post.

  9. On April 19th, 2011 at 5:29 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jon.

    Admittedly, when I first came across this study, it garnered my curiosity as a parent wanting to learn more about how children go about learning skills. However, as I began to read the researchers' findings, I couldn't help but notice how they also apply to how leaders can become more successful in their roles within their organization.

    There's no question that many are beginning to reassess/redefine what it means to be a leader within an organization these days. Studies like this one might also help us learn how we might go about becoming more effective in these roles.

  10. On April 19th, 2011 at 5:55 PM Drew Hawkins said:

    I think there's a lot to be said for grit. This takes me back to my cross country running days. We had a lot of guys with pure natural talent on the team. However, we also had guys that put in hard mileage and effort in comparison to the gifted ones. Over time (more particularly by the end of the season) the guys who had shown grit were the clutch runners at the end of the season. It was this grit study in action.

    Sure there were some exceptions to the rule but that's just what they were – exceptions.

  11. On April 20th, 2011 at 11:47 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Drew for sharing your story. I think it helps to illustrate the point that while innate abilities might help us succeed in the short run, pairing our abilities up with a sense of grit is what allows others to push ahead and attain those high achievements over the long run.

    Thanks again for sharing Drew. Good to see you again here on my blog.

  12. On April 20th, 2011 at 3:31 PM jjeffords said:

    Great thoughts. I think grit is a pivotal value/attribute in a leadership context. Aptitude absolutely matters, but leaders who can honestly address individual development opportunities are prone to be great learners and people developers.

    I actually wrote a piece about grit in the context of life balance several weeks ago called Fried Grits. Steadfast, prioritized focus on the right things will establish a solid foundation in all arenas of life. Godin alludes to grit in The Dip when he talks about people who persevere and don’t quit the worthwhile endeavors when things get tough. Great Post!

  13. On April 20th, 2011 at 7:14 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jeffrey. I hope this piece and the discussion it spurred on will encourage people to not use talent, or a lack thereof, from taking themselves out of consideration for development as future leaders in their organization. After all, the key to be an effective leader is not so much about getting those early wins; instead, it's about having the willingness and drive to keep your team on course regardless of whether things are going well or not.

    Thanks again, Jeffrey, for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  14. On April 23rd, 2011 at 7:27 PM Delena Silverfox said:

    As much as this may sound dorky, this entire post reminded me of a fabulous movie I saw called "Akeelah and the Bee," about an 11 year-old girl in an inner city public school who wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

    Lawrence Fishbourne plays her coach, and the study tactics and regimen he gives her is extremely intense, but it makes a lot of sense. And when talking about studying for a competition on that sort of level, anything other than deliberate and very focused study is going to see you through.


  15. On April 25th, 2011 at 11:54 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Delena,

    I haven't seen that movie yet, but I'm a big fan of those movies which show how powerful and significant a role teachers play in empowering children to move beyond their preconceived notions about their abilities or talent and learn to focus instead on developing that drive to succeed by working hard and persisting at it despite the obstacles they face. I find those movies share some powerful lessons for all of us to learn and adopt.

  16. On August 9th, 2011 at 2:52 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Connie; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. There's something quite satisfying and hopeful about the idea that to truly master leadership, and any discipline for that matter, is not so much about what innate traits you have, but rather what you're willing to do about those talents in terms of refining your skills through practice and perseverance. It certainly aligns with what many of the best leaders say when asked how they got to be so good at leading others – that they never thought they knew everything about being a leader and as such, they kept at the process of learning and being open to understand what they needed to keep working on.

    Thanks again, Connie for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  17. On November 16th, 2013 at 2:23 PM bobchoat said:

    When I first went to Marine boot camp, it was those that possessed to most grit that both made it through and became leaders. As I transitioned into Marine Force Recon, only a small percentage was able to make it through the training. The best of the best Marines were asked to join. Not only did we have to be the top in fitness, more important was one's mindset. I remember my arms (behind me) and legs being tied while having to survive for one hour in the deep end of a pool. Many guys ended up dropping out due to panic. Grit and toughness kept the rest of us going.

    I took what I learned from the Marines into my later life, both in starting my own business ventures and working my way through a PhD program.

    Your article is spot on in both leadership development and in the ability to succeed in all areas of life.

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