You say resilience. She says grit.

Author Angela Duckworth explains a key quality of successful business leaders

Grit, a combo of passion & perseverance, is a key trait of successful business leaders.

Interview by Patricia Grant, vice president of IT strategy at ServiceNow (publisher of Workflow).

Those who lead teams and organizations aren’t necessarily the smartest people, the greatest strategists, or the deepest thinkers. What many tend to have in common, says University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, is grit—a combination of passion and perseverance that gives them the motivation to stick to goals and see them through.

In a recent interview, Duckworth, the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” explained how business leaders can improve their “grititude” over time.

Q
Why is grit such a compelling concept?
A

When I started out studying Olympic athletes and Nobel Prize winners and visionary entrepreneurs, I thought that maybe what defines them is intensity, that the height of their enthusiasm is higher than for other people. What I came to discover is that more remarkable than the intensity of these individuals is their consistency over time.

Isaac Newton is one historic example: When he thought about what made him different from other scientists trying to understand the laws of nature, he said that other people walk away from a problem at some point, and he stuck with it. It means solving a problem and not walking away, when so many people will. It’s also about being resilient in the face of adversity, and being dedicated to constant improvement even when you’re not in the midst of adversity.

Q
Why is grit such a great predictor of success, especially given all the challenging moments of the past year?
A

When you ask great leaders what gets them out of bed and keeps them going—even through difficult chapters like the one we’re in now with the pandemic—often what drives them is their core values. The debate in psychology has long been whether people do really hard things because of some extrinsic motivation, such as money or status, or intrinsic motivation, which is about doing things that are aligned with your core personal values, like who you are and who you want to be.

When you look at the scientific research, it’s strikingly clear that these people do it for intrinsic, not extrinsic reasons.

Q
How do you nurture grit, both inside and outside?
A

There are things individuals can do to rekindle and grow their inner passion, and to develop the mindsets and skill sets of perseverance. And at the same time, there is no paragon of grit I have ever interviewed who didn’t start talking about their dependence on other people—their coach, spouse, colleagues, or collaborators. So it’s not just a DIY approach to building grit, and it’s not just leaning on others. It’s both of these things.

Q
Can you explain what you describe in your book as the “pyramid of goals”?
A

When you wonder what accounts for leaders’ intensity and consistency, what they really have is a goal hierarchy. That’s a pyramid where the goals are in harmony with each other. You have some near-term goals that are very tactical, like things you want to get done today, and then you have slightly longer-term goals. People with grit ask themselves, “Why do I want to get this done today? Because at the end of this quarter, I want to see this other goal completed. And why does that goal matter? Because we have a three-year strategic plan. Why does that plan matter? Because we have a mission that gives meaning and purpose to everything we do.”

The secret of grit is to create goal hierarchies for yourself and for your organization, where there’s as much alignment as possible: Winning for me is winning for you, where our team winning is the organization winning, which means the world is a better place.

Q
Can grit have a dark side, such as when leaders overplay their hand?
A

You can be gritty at the wrong level of your goal hierarchy. We can talk about the heyday of Polaroid, for example, which never capitalized on its unique advantage of instant film. You’d think in today’s day where we’re trading images all the time, why isn’t it Polaroid that we talk about? Why did Snapchat and Instagram surpass them? I think there was too much focus on the lower level of the hierarchy. If you understood that your vision was to help people share visual memories, that would have allowed you to be much more flexible and innovative in how you’d execute that vision.

The practical advice for leaders is to spend a full day every quarter asking, what’s the big picture? Are these tactics still serving us? Is there new information that would make me change how we’re going to get there, even if the “there” hasn’t changed?