Insights

True Grit: Not a Movie but the Most Needed Leadership Trait

How does one define the ideal leader? Most organizations try to answer this question with the goal of distinguishing the competent performers from the remarkable ones.

Eric Sheninger
, a Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, summed it up nicely: "leadership is comprised of a dynamic mix of behaviors, mindset, and skills that are used to move people where a leader wants them to be for the betterment of the organization."

So, do the desired leadership qualities depend on the organization? Is there one combination of only a few traits common among most successful leaders? Are there countless combinations, or is there one that stands out above the rest?

We explore these questions below and propose that the top leadership quality may be something called grit.

How Many Ways Can One Define Leadership?

There is a glut of books, articles, management programs, and TED talks that describe and identify leadership traits; everyone has an opinion on the subject. Many argue that there is a standard set of qualities that most successful leaders possess.

Ray Carvey
, Executive Vice President of Corporate Learning and International at Harvard Business Publishing, points out that "in a world as complex and rapidly changing as ours, there is not one [single] capability that does the trick," but a combination that works in concert to develop exceptional leaders.

Carvey's organization, which has provided leadership development solutions for over 25 years, polled managers from companies around the world on what they thought the most important leadership qualities were and four stood out: demonstrating integrity, managing complexity, inspiring engagement, and acting strategically.

The American Management Association, a corporate training and consulting group, states that the top leadership traits include being results-oriented, customer-focused, having a vision, being strategic, delegating effectively, being adept at dealing with conflict, asking great questions, being trustworthy, and excellent communication.

Jane Howze, Managing Director of The Alexander Group, believes that all successful leaders have self-confidence, EQ (which we have written on previously), and ability to inspire and motivate others to a common goal, mission, or vision.

Okay, But Let's Narrow It Down

Many other pundits proclaim that there is one distinct quality that signals a great leader.

According to a 2010 study by IBM, which at the time was the largest known sample of one-on-one CEO interviews - with over 1500 corporate heads and public leaders across 60 nations and 33 industries, the most important leadership quality for success in business is creativity.

In 2015, global research and advisory firm Universum interviewed over 2,000 CEOs, HR professionals, employer branding managers and marketing managers and found that the best leaders are expected to empower their employees.

Interestingly, a recent survey conducted by business advisory board provider The Alternative Board, which interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world, found that 47 percent stated that positivity is the most important trait a leader should possess.

A New Trait to the Mix

Perhaps the most compelling argument comes from the New York Times Bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by psychologist and former management consultant Angela Duckworth. Great leaders are usually successful in achieving their goals and Duckworth contends that "the secret to outstanding achievement...is a special blend of persistence and passion that she calls grit."

Duckworth states, "One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ. It was grit."

Duckworth conducted research at West Point, where each year 1,200 new cadets go through a grueling seven-week training regimen called "Beast Barracks." Most cadets make it through but some don't. She asked the cadets to complete a self-administered survey called a Grit Scale, designed to measure the cadets' perseverance and passion during the training regimen. When 71 cadets dropped out before completing the Barracks regimen, Duckworth recounted, "grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through, and who did not."

Her findings are intriguing; regardless of a leader's talent or IQ, if he or she possesses grit, that individual is likely to be more successful in a given field. The beauty is that it's egalitarian and, in theory, anyone can identify something they are passionate about and then practice resiliency and diligence to pursue their goals.

As former US President Calvin Coolidge stated:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."


Include passion and enjoyment of the journey to grit, and you have a recipe for success and the makings of a great leader.

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James Irvine

James W. Irvine

Senior Associate