Ledecky, Neymar, and Getting Gritty


Late last year a board member gave me feedback on a CEO I was coaching. He concluded his comments with, “…and he has GRIT!” The word stood out to me at the time. I had not heard it recently, especially to describe a leader. But since then, I feel like I’m seeing and hearing it all the time. Just last week I reached for a coffee mug at my daughter’s new apartment and found one labeled “GRIT Coffee Bar & Cafe.”
The notion of grit was prevalent in highlighting the success of athletes at the Rio Olympics. Check out these August headlines:
“Why Ledecky Wins: Grit.”
“Neymar Finds Redemption In Display of Skill and Grit”
“USA Athletes show nation the grit, pride it takes for greatness”
Grit is clearly striking a chord in our national consciousness. Many are realizing for the first time that, when it comes to accomplishing whatever your definition of success is, grit matters. And I believe the term captures an essential element of leadership character.
Think about it. Are leaders really necessary when things are easy and humming along? No. We need leaders for the unpredictable issues that (predictably) come up. Those situations, whether they last an hour, a day, a month or even years, require a gritty leader to resolve them.

Grit is a critical ingredient for leadership.

Grit was first recorded in American English in 1808, and defined as “pluck, spirit, or firmness of mind.” The 1969 film True Grit (and its 2010 remake) use grittiness as the defining characteristic of the story’s heroes.
Professor Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has been studying grit for a while. In 2010, she gave this compelling TED Talk that has been viewed over 9 million times. She argues that the defining factor in a person’s success is not IQ, talent, social intelligence, good looks, or physical health. It is his or her level of grit.
Duckworth is drawn to the notion of a Growth Mindset, first developed by Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Growth Mindset is the idea that “the ability to learn is not fixed…that it can be changed with effort.”
I witness this kind of grit every day with the leaders I coach. When they see an aspect of their leadership that could be better, they don’t give up and say, “Well, that’s just the way I am!” No. They are committed to learning and deliberate about change in themselves. The best leaders I know want to keep getting better. And their mantra is, “Progress, not perfection.”
Assess your own level of grit using Duckworth’s Grit Scale (a quick ten-question survey). The scale definitely has limitations, but it is a good vehicle for reflection.
This Forbes article builds on Duckworth’s ideas, defining grit as a combination of five characteristics:

  1. Courage: you are not afraid of failure, but dive headfirst into new endeavors.
  2. Conscientiousness: you are “achievement-oriented” and care about completing a task well.
  3. Follow-Through: you are willing to put in the hours to realize your goal.
  4. Resilience: you bounce back from setbacks and press on toward your goal.
  5. Excellence: you don’t hold perfection as the ideal, but find fulfillment in steady progress toward your goal.

Part of the magic of watching the Olympics is witnessing the apparent ease with which athletes complete incredibly difficult feats. Yet, the true wonder is each athlete’s commitment to hours and years of training in relative solitude in order to compete with the best.
Bruce Gemmell, coach to swimmer Katie Ledecky, says of her training mentality, “There are days she fails catastrophically. She fails in practice more than anybody in her group…But you know what? She’ll come back the next day and try it again. And on the third day, she’ll nail it.”
Or Neymar. He had a mediocre start at the beginning of the Games. But the Brazilian soccer star persevered to lead his team to a gold medal, scoring the winning goal in overtime against the formidable Germans.
That’s grit. Staying the course through difficult situations, seasons, even failure, to achieve a goal. Take a cue from Ledecky and Neymar, and…

Get Gritty!