Grit: Leadership Through Pure Will

I was visiting a friend and her husband in Denver earlier this summer and we decided to take a hike up Mount Falcon.  It was a great day for an Indiana "flat-lander," to just enjoy the amazing character of the Colorado Mountains.  On our hike we came across the tree that you see behind the title of this post.  It was amazing how it was able to grow around and over the rocks beneath it. I thought to myself that it had to have gone through some challenging storms both in the spring and winter seasons on top of this mountain.  How did it hold on through all those challenges in its life?   As I was sitting at the Global Leadership Summit a couple of weeks ago, Bill Hybels, a well-known pastor, author and speaker, talked about something that made me reflect on that unique tree on top of Mount Falcon.  He stated that there were five aspects of intangible leadership. One of the aspects was "grit," which he fleshed out for the leaders in the audience. 

He said that to have grit was to have passion and perseverance over a long period of time. He retold the story of the Little Engine that Could from our childhood, and how the engine was determined through pure will to get the train over the mountain by saying, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." When he pushed himself further than he ever thought he could, he reached the top and began saying, "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could."  Bill mentioned that the enemy of grit was "ease." Recalling the tree on Mount Falcon, I know that this tree did not have an easy life and it had to have the passion and the perseverance to overcome the challenges put before it.  It had grit and it inspired me to have it too.    

   "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me..."          - Abe Lincoln's letter to William Seward, June 28, 1862.

"I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me..."        - Abe Lincoln's letter to William Seward, June 28, 1862.

As I spoke about in my last blog on humility, Jim Collins stated that Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless ("Level 5 Leadership, Harvard Business Review). He said that to grasp this concept, consider Abraham Lincoln, who never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring great nation. Author Henry Adams called him “a quiet, peaceful, shy figure.” But those who thought Lincoln’s understated manner signaled weakness in the man found themselves terribly mistaken—to the scale of 250,000 Confederate and 360,000 Union lives, including Lincoln’s own.  One example of Lincoln's "gritty" leadership is found in a quote from a letter that he sent to William Seward, a Senator in 1862.  In it he said, "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me." He was not going to quit until there was nothing else he could do. 

Jim Collins also spoke about Coleman M. Mockler, the CEO of Gillette from 1975 to 1991.  Mockler was challenged with three takeover attempts, but dealt with them with a reserved, gracious and gentle manner.  Collins goes on to say that "his placid personality hid an inner intensity, a dedication to making anything he touched the best — not just because of what he would get but because he couldn't imagine doing it any other way."  Is this the way that you habitually face your tasks? 

I know I don't always face my tasks in this manner, but recently I have been going through the challenge of finding a job.  This has been no easy task and I literately have had to unpack the framed picture of my life motto that I always have on the wall that states, "If it isn't a challenge, it's not worth doing."  This task of finding a job is a job in itself.  I am up for the task, but there are times that I am discouraged and down.  I have to dig deep within myself and find my "grit" as I have done in the past to push myself to move forward.  By reflecting on the successes of the past as well as the lessons learned, they give me confidence to overcome the "walls" in front of me.  I know that a new job is just over the next wall and so I keep pushing forward.

A very close friend of mine shared a letter that he sent to a "gritty" leader he respected.  In it he wrote: 

"You have been an incredible inspiration to me. I've been honestly awed at your ability to put your mind to something and achieve higher heights than I could have imagined.  You set  a lofty goal, recognizing the high level of challenge, and then you go after it and achieve it.  You press through things when it seems like you can't make any further progress and keep focused on the goal.  It is inspiring.  On top of that, I have never met someone with an outlook that is so consistently positive.  You never look at setbacks or conflicts or issues as a reason to get upset and complain.  Instead, they are opportunities to grow, achieve, and build.  You summarize this when you use the phrase from the Marines - 'Pain is just weakness leaving the body'."  

I believe that what my friend described in his letter is the same type of leader that Bill Hybels described: the intangible leadership trait of grit. 

Take a minute and reflect on your character.  If you asked a trusted friend how your level of "grit" was, what would they say?  How are you setting the example for those you have an opportunity to lead when it comes to having an "intense professional will"?  Take action today.  Be like the tree that I saw on top of the mountain and go get "gritty"!