Guts, gumption & grit: You have what it takes?

Today, business owners are faced with a number of challenges and recent economic conditions have compounded some of those. In many cases, they’ve had to make hard decisions, change the way they think and change the way they do business. And that’s not necessarily easy to do and, oftentimes, it comes down to guts. Call it whatever you like…you have it?

In the popular western story, “True Grit,” 14-year-old Mattie Ross sets out on a quest to avenge her father’s death. Her arduous endeavor doesn’t appeal much to the most professional gunslingers. With unrelenting determination and doggedness (grit), she enlists the help of an aging, half-blind, half-drunk U.S. marshal. She believes he’s the man with true grit – a trait this intuitive (and gritty) girl believes is needed to navigate the perils of the untamed territory.

Whether facing the perils posed by rough terrain, hungry rattlesnakes, and desperate outlaws, or facing the challenges created by disappearing profits, global instability, and increasing competition, grit is the factor that embodies the indomitable character of the U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and his unlikely sidekick. Grit, it turns out, is the key to success – the defining characteristic that overrides fear, doubt, and roadblocks.

So, if you are a leader trying to navigate this perilous, never-ending economic landscape to venture into the unknown – grit is what you need.

“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me…. You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” – Walt Disney

The Grit Factor

A leading research psychologist, Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., contends that people who accomplish great things often combine a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. That appears to be the case with businesses today.

Over the past three decades, Dome Printing has become one of the largest privately held commercial printing companies in northern California. Tim Poole, who runs the century-old company along with his brothers, Andy and Bob, says that guts, gumption, and grit define his leadership style. This is evidenced by the company’s steadfast devotion to its mission to be a world-class print solutions provider, supplying the best customer experience, and using its competitive advantage.

“My leadership style has a call for all of these attributes timed, delivered, and executed in the right doses to insure balance in our organization,” Poole says. “Steadiness of character is measured by a leader’s commitment to applying values consistently. Trust is achieved by building respect, and respect is acquired by people knowing what you stand for. Without displaying grit, guts, and gumption, I guess that the opposite would apply – a spineless, selfish individual with a lack of the resourcefulness needed to make good decisions.”

David Bailey, Jr., president of Lithographics, a 36-year-old Nashville printing company says that having guts and grit is a major reason why the company still is in business today. “Considering the way things have been for the last several years, if you are the leader of a business and don’t have a whole lot of guts and grit, you are probably not going to be in business much longer,” he says.

Poole says there definitely is a lack of the “grit factor” in today’s world. “We love the Reagan years. He was one of the first presidents in years that had the guts, gumption, and grit to make changes in the White House. I have admiration when I meet great leaders. They are easy to recognize. On the flip side, there seems to be more companies being led by people who lack strong character – guts, gumption, and grit. I have had the opportunity to visit failed companies, and it is usually obvious that the root cause of failure is lack of vision and not enough guts. It takes guts to do the right things.”

Bailey says that, unfortunately, it seems that some business leaders want to take the easy way out. “Sadly, the majority of businesses that I interact with are continuing to work on or manage how they are going to ‘look’ in order to survive and prosper in this new economy.”

Jill Wangler, marketing director at Fineline Printing Group, says some people like to take the path of least resistance. “A lot of people inherently don’t like confrontation – don’t like to be challenged. For certain roles in a business, there’s a fit for these folks. But for a manager or leader, I think a lack of these traits – guts, gumption, and grit – are detrimental to the organization as a whole for a lot of reasons.”

So, Do You Have Grit?

Not only is grit important, but Duckworth also contends that having grit – that perseverance and passion for long-term goals – can better predict success than traits such as IQ or conscientiousness. A few years ago, she set out to determine what qualities most accurately would predict outstanding achievement. She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. This simple test requires you to rate yourself on 12 questions (it relies entirely on self-report). The test takes about three minutes to complete. Here are some sample questions from the Grit Scale:

1. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

2. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

3. My interests change from year to year.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

When Duckworth took the Grit Scale into the field, she found it to be remarkably predictive. At the University of Pennsylvania, research indicated that high grit ratings enabled students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high GPAs. Next, Duckworth administered the grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point, embarking on a grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks.

The military also has developed its own complex evaluation to judge incoming cadets and predict which ones would survive the demands of West Point. The test includes grades, a physical fitness evaluation, and a leadership test. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate analysis of which cadets persisted and which dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Duckworth carried out a similar “success study” with kids who competed in spelling bees. Again, it turned out that grit – in this case, the ability to persist and passionately pursue your goal of winning the spelling bee by doing whatever it takes – was the best judge of success.

Nature or Nurture

Is grit an inborn ability, just like intelligence, or a talent? Or, can grit be cultivated? Many psychologists and philosophers contend that adversity is essential for character development.  Was young Mattie Ross, the heroine of “True Grit,” born with grit, or did she grow gritty due to adversity (the loss of her father)? Would Rooster Cogburn have had less grit if he still had both of his eyes?

Lithographic’s Bailey argues that qualities such as grit come from your core being. “I agree with the saying that, ‘adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals whether someone has it or not.’ I’m sure that everyone possesses some of these, but at different levels. If you don’t have much of it, it is very difficult for it to be nurtured or grown or developed.”

Fineline Printing Group’s Wangler believes in the power of both forces – nature and nurture. “I’m not saying they’re equal, but the ‘nurture’ influence can vary based on one’s upbringing and relationships. For employees, I think it’s important to challenge them appropriately and provide opportunities to build on their passion wherever I can. What’s especially important for young professionals is for them to know that making mistakes is okay.”

Perhaps the adverse economic climate has fueled the growth of grit in some individuals, and the challenges we face should be hailed as opportunities for evolution. Dome Printing’s Poole says his character strength is deeply rooted in his DNA, but that experiences also have shaped who he is. “The fear of failure causes me to constantly examine what is working and what changes need to occur to drive innovation and ward off complacency,” he says. “I have had and still do experience influences that help shape my character. The older I get, it seems that the rate of influence is accelerated, or the economy has forced me to examine everything much closer. I challenge my weaknesses and never give up.”

“If a company desires to have a business culture of grit, gumption, and guts, the rewards should be felt throughout the organization,” Poole says. “In leadership training, we teach individuals how to make decisions. I think we will add a segment on the value of understanding these defined characteristics as we build leaders in our organization.”

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