Grit is good, but not enough to get to the top

Seven attributes that executives need to reach the corporate summit

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Sep 26, 2018
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Key takeaways:

  • 'Grit' is said to be the key quality that predicts business success.
  • But entrepreneurs need it more than ambitious company executives. 
  • Other attributes, such as enthusiasm, luck, passion, family, routine, fitness and ethics, are more important.

Call it what you want—staying power, resilience, ‘bounce-back’ ability or grit—it is widely viewed as a desirable leadership quality. But is true grit the predictor of success? Defined as ‘essentially self-control, the ability to push through setbacks and difficulties,’ researchers say that ‘this elusive quality trumps natural talent as a predictor of who was likely to succeed and who would not.’

To be sure, an entrepreneur facing bankruptcy, repossession and destitution might need to display true grit to get through the worst of it, and be ready to start again. Equally, grit might drive that last ditch effort to bring home a deal against the odds. However, in large companies there are few occasions that require this quality.

Corporations aren’t especially known for attracting gritty people. Naomi Shragai, a psychotherapist and business consultant, writes in a provocative FT article that those ‘with extreme dependent personalities gravitate towards the structure and close relationships inherent in organisations. This can be a haven particularly for insecure or emotionally fragile individuals who need the assurance they receive from managers to compensate for their lack of self-belief.’

Her assessment may seem a bit harsh. But if it’s not grit that leads to success, then what does? Financial Times | IE Corporate Learning Alliance offers seven attributes that might have more bearing.

Enthusiasm: If, as Winston Churchill thought, success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’ then the corporate world with its pointless innovations and jettisoned investments provides plenty of opportunities to demonstrate this quality. Outcomes are often beyond your control, so, don't take all setbacks personally. Rather, embrace the next challenge with undiminished spirit - a project's success or failure is often just down to luck.

Luck: Luck manifests in different ways. You might be lucky to have benefitted from family contacts, an expensive education or because you entered the workforce at the start of an economic boom, gaining valuable experience and assets early on. For some, it increases in proportion to hard work. Perhaps luckiest of all are those able to pursue a passion.

Passion: These lucky, passionate few benefit from that rare quality of ‘flow’ (i.e. total absorption in their job). They don’t yearn for a career change. Nor do they plod dutifully on until the mortgage is paid off and the kids have grown up. Chasing the dream is far from straightforward. When British-Asian comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar told his mother he wanted to become an actor she responded: “Son, we pronounce that doctor”.

Family. It’s a commonplace view, but so much career success depends on strong family bonds. Families don’t have to be conventional, but a supportive partner and an emotionally stable family life from an early age anchors long-term ambition, and creates resilience against failure. Unfortunately, too much ‘grit’ is wasted on divorce, familial bitterness and related mental health concerns.

Tolerance for the mundane. Many graduate recruits think that their new employer wants to attract ‘the best brains.’ It doesn’t. Most corporate jobs require high fliers to have a reasonable level of intelligence and common sense. They should also be reliable, competent, look the part, and not rock the boat. Much of the work they will do will be boring and repetitive, but after 10,000 hours of it executives will have gained what’s known as ‘experience’ which justifies their next promotion.

Physical fitness. It is not uncommon to discover that your chief executive has enjoyed past successes on the sports field. For those less fleet of foot, the gym has become an essential feature of working life. There’s a reason for this. Flying around the world to manage remote offices, for example, requires an athlete’s stamina. Fitness also staves off colds, backaches and depression that can derail the most determined high-flyer.

A moral compass. It sometimes seems that only psychopaths get to the top. But the absence of personal sense of ethics often presages a more dramatic and precipitous fall. When no-one dares to call the leader to account, and the company’s own code of conduct is ambiguous, everything depends on one’s own sense of right and wrong.

This article was written for FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance. A version of this article was first published in HR Magazine.


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Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.