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Home > 2013 > January Online Only > The Secret Ingredient to Success

People who study spelling bee contestants (some people clearly have too much time on their hands) say that the winners are characterized by an interesting dynamic. At the top level, national spelling bee winners cannot be predicted by IQ or grade point average or test scores. Researchers say that those who perform at the highest level are the students who are willing to keep looking at flash cards and drilling and practicing long after everybody else gives up.

Which leads to the next question: what enables some students to keep at it when everybody else is watching Gilligan's Island reruns or playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? (Bonus points if you understand both references.)

The answer is grit.

The ability to endure. The capacity to continue a worthwhile activity in the face of boredom, frustration, pain, or lack of immediate gratification. Grit predicts effectiveness far more than natural talent or genetic endowments. Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness.

So I have been thinking a lot about grit lately. Over the last several months, since we did a staff re-structure, I have embraced a whole lot more leadership functions for our church and staff. I've needed to re-structure my time, my energy deployment, my activities, my goals, and the way I'll be evaluated. I am being stretched in ways that are wonderful but often deeply challenging. (In ministry, like in yoga, stretching should not cause sharp sudden damaging pain, but it always goes beyond what's comfortable.)

Our leadership team is looking together at how we articulate the strategic framework that can enable us to make ministry decisions that are coherent instead of random or episodic. We're looking at how we can own a framework that empowers our staff and ministry leaders to make decisions with clarity rather than having to ask someone else or look in a policy handbook.

Mostly what we need is not more intelligence. We have lots of analytical skills. Mostly we need the grit to keep at a difficult task and simply not give up until we have defeated the dozens of units of entropy that will fight us.

Which leads to another question: where does grit come from?

One of the leaders I'm reflecting on a lot these days is Abraham Lincoln. If you haven't seen the movie yet, it's worth seeing a couple of times. I have over 50 Lincoln books at home, and I always have at least one Lincoln book in the mix of whatever I'm reading. I often think that when it comes to what Jim Collins calls the "Level Five leader," who combines an indomitable will with deeply self-effacing humility, Lincoln remains the greatest leader America has yet produced. (As to will—Lincoln himself singly held together the Union determination to fight what remains the bloodiest war in American history; as to humility—Lincoln was famous for saying things like: "At least you can know I'm not two-faced; if I had two faces I surely wouldn't be wearing this one.")

I just finished David Von Drehle's Rise to Greatness about Lincoln and the American journey in the year 1862. The author chronicles an act of Lincoln that was central to his leadership, but not known until many years after his death. Lincoln had to puzzle—as did all Americans—as to why the Civil War was so much lengthier and costlier than anyone anticipated. He actually did this privately, in one of the most remarkable documents any president has ever produced, called "Meditation on the Divine Will."

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Related Topics:PatiencePerseverancePurposeSoul
Posted: January 21, 2013

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April 21, 2013  9:42am

Well thought out & well written. Thanks for the encouragement!

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Jim sparks

February 05, 2013  12:57am

Of course, if Lincoln had simply allowed the South to have the same indpendence that the original 13 Colonies had desired from England, then 660,000 soldiers would not have died. Lincoln was the George III of 1861 - a man who demanded that those who wished to leave, should stay, and who sent tens of thousands of soldiers to inforce his own will. And if Lincoln had not called out the troops, then it is probable that Arkansas and Virginia "may not" have seceeded. Grit. Sure. But it still caused a lot of suffering and pain to everyone else. Pain that would not have been necessary except for his "grit".

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Shirley Wong

February 04, 2013  12:23am

A preacher pointed out that the A list of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 are actually people who endure, people with grit. See Heb 12:1.

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January 27, 2013  10:52am

My history a bit vague. But was the elderly Tolstoy sent out ( to die eventually of pneumonia ?--) into the snow by his family.... .? { This over the issue of sharing wealth ??? His take on the Sermon on the mount not accepted then, though I think it was prophetic of the Russian Revolution.. He was seeing what actually needed to be done in Russia, long before the revolution came.} Still not easily accepted ??? & Made me think perhaps , of grit.

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Marshall Shelley

January 22, 2013  8:57am

I needed those words: "leadership requires grit, and the grit comes from God, from the conviction that God is doing something in this world and that I am, somehow, despite my inadequacies, a part of it." That's true grit, indeed. Thanks John.

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