What Grit Looks Like in the Post-Pandemic Leader
Passion, purpose and perseverance for the executive leaders — and the workforce — of tomorrow
WHAT IS GRIT?
Hard times call for hard people. At least that’s what conventional wisdom has told us. So grit has often been equated with a stoniness of character, a sang-froid in the pursuit of a stratospheric goal. And, so too has the grit of leaders often been tied to a kind of relentlessness. But that “irresistible force” notion of grit has proved difficult to reconcile in the face of a truly “immovable obstacle.” In this light, those hard takes on grit start to look more like canards of blustered corporate mythology or passed-down John Wayne catchphrases.
So is there no longer a place for that cluster of qualities we call grit? Or, more likely, is it just that we need to update our notions of what grit actually is? If these last years have taught us anything, it’s that we need to dig deeper, even — maybe especially — when we’re talking about what it means to “dig deeper.”
NEW PRIORITIES REDEFINE GRIT
The world has changed. We can all see that. But even in the before times, stoking people to “pull up their bootstraps” and “push on through” had started to ring hollow. Those kinds of exhortations ignored the workforce’s growing need to have a personal connection to the organizational mission, not just an allegiance to it.
People, more than ever, want to see their values reflected in the missions they sign on for. And they have an expectation that the organizational mission will include a reciprocal investment in them. From a stoic perspective, these attitudes could be interpreted as lacking grit. But that would be a reductive take.
It seems fairly obvious that “the future of work” was only going to click into place once those of us in leadership roles began showing our people a version of that future they’d actually want to follow us into. But it’s not easy to rout old biases or own the truths about how the world is changing. And it’s not easy to address the expectations of the people who will fuel (and be moved by) those changes.
With a workforce now populated by four distinct generational sensibilities, leaders will need to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of what it means to persevere, find purpose and stoke passions — in effect, getting a grip on the new paradigm of grit.
Angela Duckworth, behavioral psychologist and author of ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, says, “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an ‘ultimate concern’ – a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”
GRIT IN THE GRIP OF THE GENERATION GAP
What some executive leaders may see as a lack of grit in their people, may, in fact, just be grit aimed in unanticipated directions. If the organization’s “ultimate concern” is not being serviced adequately, then perhaps it’s a question of leaders failing to align those goals effectively.
Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z have different attitudes and expectations (often wildly so). We won’t be plumbing the depths of that here — this isn’t an expansive study — but we can make some illuminating generalizations:
- BOOMERS are at the end or nearing the end of their professional lives. If not attached to some sense of legacy, they’re likely less concerned with grander organizational imperatives and more focused on elegant exit trajectories and protecting the status quo until they can achieve that. This is not to diminish the work this generation is doing or has done. But, as a matter of course, they’ll be less inclined to reinvent the wheels they feel have been rolling along smoothly enough.
- GEN X, a generation overshadowed and outnumbered by the previous generation, has only recently started to find security in more influential roles. There’s an eagerness there to innovate and display value, and they are the best bridge between the often contentious priorities of the larger generations they’re sandwiched between. Gen X ingenuity has become a big driver of change in recent times but that change may not always be in the areas where it’s most needed. Many in this generation delayed their ambitions, waiting for Boomers to make room for them. Now they’re hurrying to have an impact before being pushed out by the swelling demographics below them.
- MILLENNIALS may rightly claim to be the “most cheated” generation. Raised on hyperbole about their own potential and a promise of infinite upward mobility, they have collided with a reality that looks nothing like that halcyon world. Their professional and lifestyle prospects are less sunny than those of their parents and grandparents. They have more debt, less assets, and fewer opportunities. And what positive change they do see seems to be doled out begrudgingly and too slowly. The future for them is an attenuated one. More than anything, they want to see the world they were promised — and their place in it — finally come into focus. Over one in three participants in the US workforce are Millennials.
- GEN Z is positioned to be the greatest beneficiary of Millenial disenchantment. They have a more empirically informed version of the Millennial sensibility — every bit as aspirational but without the disaffection. While they have less workplace skills, they are more educated and less willing to take on debt. They have an expectation of inclusiveness and diversity that is far greater than previous generations. And they believe that organizations have a responsibility to lead in these areas, and on a whole spectrum of other progressive agendas (including climate change and labor reform). With this generation primed to become the dominant demographic in the workforce, it would be a mistake for organizations to ignore its priorities. Core values, positive work culture, compensation, flexibility and continuous learning opportunities are among the most important factors determining career choices for this group. Organizations that reflect Gen Z’s priorities will find their efforts rewarded with loyalty.
Each of these groups has a strong point of view. And while their views are not wholly attuned, there are overlaps. Whatever grit they bring to bear will, at least partially, be working in service of those concerns. Today’s effective leaders will need to navigate these various agendas and find ways to make them more at one with the ultimate organizational concerns — and at least somewhat aligned with each other. The true grit of leaders will be proven in doing just that.
LEADING WITH GRIT GENERATES GRIT
Of course, no one is saying that this will be an easy task. But grit is not how we get to easy. It’s what we need to get to the results that really matter. Even if what you’re really focused on is growth and increased shareholder value, the best way to get there is still with your people lending their grit to that pursuit. And, in today’s paradigm, that only happens if some of your grit is also being dedicated to their ultimate concerns.
The trials of the last years haven’t changed where we need to get to. They’ve only shortened the timeline for how long we have to get it right — or face the pitfalls of getting it wrong. Any efforts that don’t balance the needs of stakeholders are bound to falter in the long term.
Hard times have highlighted the need for leaders with true grit. That ‘grit’ today isn’t as simple as Duke-ing our way through to the other side is the whole point. It’s a new world and, while there may still be a place for some of that stoic John Wayne style, the times and workforces demand a more nimble definition of the word.
Leaders confronting the needs of multigenerational workforces, systems swept up in the tumult of digitalization efforts, and organizations reeling from pandemic-driven pivoting need more nuanced perseverance tools. Empathy, emotional intelligence, generosity and justness — paired with the steely resilience to hold on to those values — will be the soft power skills that energize leadership into the next era.
The future isn’t a manifest destiny — some unalterable destination we arrive at despite ourselves. The future will be the world that leaders bring people towards. If we want them to appreciate our leadership, we must have the grit to make it a world worth joining.