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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.

Some other posts you may enjoy:

  1. Are You Using Dialects To Develop Your Employees’ Skills?
  2. Becoming A Leader For All The Wrong Reasons
  3. How Two Simple Words Can Energize Your Team and Grow Your Business
  4. Why Leaders Need to Finish the Race
  5. Is Leadership an Art or a Science?
  6. Leaders, Are You Asking the Right Questions?


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