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The importance of grit for the business owner

Last week, I had lunch with a business owner friend whose company has rebounded from a particularly challenging two-year soft patch. We talked about the people in his business who are helping to make the turnaround happen, and we also caught up on how our kids were doing. After lunch, it occurred to me that the success of his business and of our children had more to do with the character trait of resilience than any other single factor. We may call this trait perseverance or tenacity; psychologists studying this ability to set specific long-term goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them simply call this trait “grit.”

tg-screenshotGrit is an essential and often overlooked element of success. It correlates more highly with success in business than intelligence or a specific talent. This is especially true for entrepreneurs, who need to have a high capacity for rebounding from setbacks and failures. It’s a key factor on an “entrepreneurial index” I use with clients interested in starting a business. Grit shows up in all aspects of life, as shown in a 2008 study of West Point cadets done by the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. Duckworth found that grit, more than intelligence or fitness, was a predictor of which cadets would make it through the first grueling summer of training and not drop out. Duckworth’s grit survey was a better predictor of success in a national spelling bee than IQ scores.

Thinking about the role of grit for business owners reminded me of a study done by The Center for Creative Leadership that I read years ago. The study was looking for reasons that managers on the way up derail, while others go on to greater and greater success. The key difference was not intelligence, education, training or lucky breaks. It was the way the managers dealt with setbacks and obstacles. Those who derailed along their career paths blamed others for their mistakes, tried to cover up failures or didn’t get over them. The successful executives owned their errors, let their bosses know of the problem, came up with solutions, learned from their mistakes and moved on. Every leader runs into walls at some point in his or her career. It’s how those walls are dealt with that differentiates the highly successful from the rest.

For business owners, these findings have specific implications. First, character traits trump specific skills and knowledge when you hire. Interview for evidence of tenacity in the pursuit of long-term goals. Hire people who “own the problem” and have a track record of rebounding from failures. Reward your employees who help the most in the tough times. Get rid of the ones who always have an excuse, blame others or give up easily. And as the leader of your business, remember what works best for you personally in terms of recharging your personal energy stockpile and sense of optimism. All business leaders hit the wall from time to time, and it’s critical to know what it takes for you to rebound.

Finally, if you’re a parent, don’t just give your children support, encouragement and an abundance of activities. Give them opportunities to make mistakes and learn resilience. Don’t solve every problem for them. Encourage them to stick with the really tough long-term goals like learning to play the piano or excel at a sport. You’ll be doing your children and their future employers a favor.