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Leadership Journal

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The Secret Ingredient to Success

The Secret Ingredient to Success

A little grit goes a long way.

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."

He noted (with the Euclidian logic Lincoln loved) that if God wanted the war to cease, it would cease. The war had not ceased, therefore God had not willed that it cease. Therefore, God must have some purpose in the war's continuation that no human being had engineered.

And that purpose, Lincoln discerned, was the destruction of slavery. The war, which had begun over whether or not the Union should be saved, was allowed to continue and spread until it also became the decider of the fate of slavery. Lincoln (who was not an orthodox Christian; whole forests have been cut down to produce paper for books arguing about his religious convictions) came to believe that the war was serving a divine purpose for freedom. He actually told the Cabinet that he had made a vow "to his Maker" that he would see this purpose through. And so he did; this meditation became the foundation for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (which historian Mark Noll says was the greatest piece of theological reflection not only of any U.S. president but nearly of any U.S. theologian). Lincoln was killed five days after the war ended, on Good Friday.

It has caused me to reflect—how often do I "meditate on the divine will"? What is it that God is doing in the world that I will either help or hinder? What is at stake in my faithfulness or faithlessness?

I will not be the Great Emancipator, or the Great Anything. But I believe that 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.

So said another gritty leader, a long time ago: "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had" (Rom. 15:4-5).

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