The Treasure of True Grit

Successful Business Leaders: Learning Through Failures

Think about a time when you failed, and what you learned from that experience. Now think of the most successful employees you’ve ever worked with, the individuals you’ve mentored who excelled the most, or the leaders you’ve studied who seem to achieve every goal they set for themselves. Undoubtedly, a common thread between all will be that those individuals have the strength to learn why they failed, what to do in the future to succeed, and the willpower to get back on the horse and try again. 

But exactly what is it that leads one person to try again when others just give up?

Industrial and organizational psychologists have spent decades researching this very subject. Angela Duckworth, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and her research focuses on a personality trait she calls "grit." She defines grit as "sticking with things over the very long term until you master them." Angela writes that "the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” In the workplace, this trait can go a long way towards not only achieving your long-term goals but developing your teams and creating more efficient processes.

Continue reading to learn how grit leads to successful business leaders and the value they can add to your teams.

Success and Talent

What causes an individual to experience significant success? The obvious answer: success is about talent. Successful people can do something – hit a golf ball, dance, trade stocks, write a blog – better than most anyone else. This answer begets another question: What is talent? How did that person get so good at hitting a golf ball or trading stocks? Although talent can appear to be based on inheritance, it turns out that the intrinsic nature of talent may be overrated. 

The problem is that a major contradiction exists between how we measure talent and the causes of talent. In general, we measure talent using tests of maximum performance. Imagine tryouts for most any sports team; players perform in short bursts under conditions of high intensity and motivation. The purpose of the drills is to see what players are capable of and determine their potential. The problem with these drills is that the real world is not set up for short bursts of work ethic under conditions of high motivation. Instead, professional success requires sustained performance, spending hours upon hours perfecting your craft, deliberately and methodically staying the course during times of frustration or exhaustion.

In his book, Self-Made in America, John McCormack references a trait studied by Kathy Kolbe: conation. Conation is “the will to succeed, the quest for success, the attitude that ‘to stop me you’ll have to kill me,’ that elusive ‘fire in the belly’ that manifests itself in drive, enthusiasm, excitement, and single-mindedness in pursuit of a goal, any goal. All consistently successful people have it. Many well-educated, intelligent, enduring, and presentable people don’t have it.” 

Interviewing for Grit

A segment of the workforce is made up of smart people who aren't high achievers, and others who achieve a lot without having the highest test scores. In one study, Duckworth found that smarter students actually had less grit than their peers who scored lower on an intelligence test. This finding suggests that people who are not as bright as their peers "compensate by working harder and with more determination." And their effort pays off: The grittiest students, not the smartest ones, had the highest GPAs.

So how can we start to understand an applicant’s or an employee’s grit? Here are some questions you may consider asking potential hires to identify the trait:

  • What experiences have most influenced who you are today?
  • Share with me the details of a time when you stayed with an idea or project for longer than anyone expected you to.
  • Tell me about some of the obstacles you have had to overcome to reach your present position.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to finish a job even though everyone else had given up.
  • Describe a time when you were asked to complete a difficult task or project where the odds were against you. Were you successful? What did you learn from the experience?
  • What goal have you had in your life that took you the longest to achieve? What did you learn from that experience?
  • Describe how you set your goals for the last year and how you measured your work. Did you achieve your goals? Why or why not?
  • Give me an example of a time you made a major sacrifice to achieve an important goal. 
  • Give me an example of how you have taken control of your career.
  • What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in life? What about in your career?
  • When you found yourself faced with that obstacle, what steps did you take to begin the process of overcoming this challenge?

By asking these questions, you will gain deeper insight into the person’s ability to overcome obstacles and drive results for your teams, even in the face of adversity.

Learn More: Dig Deeper With Experiential Interviews

Find Successful Business Leaders with Kinsley Sarn

For many companies, finding exceptional leaders can be quite a challenge. With so many qualified candidates on the market, it can often be difficult to narrow down your options and choose the right fit –– not only for the position but for your culture as well. This is where partnering with an executive search firm, such as Kinsley Sarn, can help. 

As former executives ourselves, we can quickly recognize when potential hires exhibit the necessary traits to excel and add value to your organization. Through our refined, proprietary process, we streamline how we find critical talent for your organization. 

By starting with a well-crafted candidate profile that details not only the responsibilities of the position but outlines your organization’s objectives, we begin to attract the type of candidates that share your same passion and goals. While often overlooked, this is a vital step to make the process more efficient in the long run. Once we have sourced a qualified talent pool, we then carry out an in-depth assessment of their skills and abilities. After evaluating their results, we then 

To learn more about how you can take advantage of a partnership like ours, contact our team. We would love to share our expertise with your business to drive powerful results across all levels of your organization.

This content was originally written by Karen Schmidt for the Sanford Rose Associates Executive Search Network in September 2013 and reworked by Kinsley Sarn in September 2022.

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