Six Ways to Model Grit as a Nonprofit Leader

Uncategorized Nov 09, 2018

Everyone should join a book club. I am fortunate enough to be part of an amazing group of truly brilliant women who meet once a month to drink a little wine and discuss some great books. Our choice this month was “GRIT” by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change For Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics. And, she wrote a groundbreaking book in 2016 entitled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

GRIT offers a strong case for substantiating the premise that when it comes to successful outcomes, grit trumps talent every time. The book is filled with examples of how those individuals who demonstrate perseverance and passion toward long-term goals are “gritty” and achieve outstanding results.

As always, I started thinking about what I could share with my nonprofit colleagues about the teachings of GRIT and putting them into practice in the social sector. Here are some ways to exemplify grit as a nonprofit leader.

1) Remember that leadership is a practice. Many of my coaching clients undergo a 360 degree self-assessment as part of their work with me. We generally focus on those behaviors that are most challenging and work on ways to practice small improvements through deliberate strategies. Knowing what you need to focus on and finding deliberate ways to practice leadership are two very different things. Be intentional about practicing what scares you and what you know is not comfortable. And of course, be frequent around all of those behaviors that make you an effective leader.

2) Celebrate small victories. This is a tough one. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” This is a lesson that I have learned over the years. In the nonprofit sector, we tend to go from one fundraising appeal to the next, one board meeting to the next, or one event to the next without fully reflecting on what we just accomplished. In honoring both passion and perseverance, we need to stop, pause and celebrate our victories.

As Duckworth notes, “successful people like to challenge themselves and compete, even when their efforts yield only small victories. Small victories build new androgen receptors in the areas of the brain responsible for reward and motivation. The increase in androgen receptors increases the influence of testosterone, which further increases the confidence and eagerness to tackle future challenges. When you achieve a series of small victories, the boost in your confidence can last for months.”

3) Exhibit a growth mindset for you and your team. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in this field or have been leading an organization if you don’t have a growth mindset you can't create a culture of grit.  According to Carol Dweck in her book "Mindset Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential",  "people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort." I am constantly reminded of the fixed mindset that nonprofit leaders articulate. There is a lot of “that’s how we have always done this..." and "that idea won't work for our clients". Be committed as a leader to growing your leadershp mindset. 

4) Practice self-discipline. As leaders, we need to continually fight against the “bright shy object syndrome”. Because our work can happen over very extended periods of time, it is easy to become distracted by the latest and greatest initiative that we pick up at a conference. We are always looking for new ways to generate more revenue, but we must be mindful about mission creep. I found myself battling this concept a lot during my time working for Habitat Lehigh Valley. Building houses is not exactly an overnight activity. We often shared with our families that they could count on an 18 -24 month process. So, instant gratification isn’t happening! Self-talk needs to be focused on asking good, solid analytical questions about the “why” behind any new initiative.

On a personal level, as a leader, you can become more disciplined by developing habits that challenge you. For example, if you hate looking at financials, make it a practice of sitting down with your CFO once a week to learn something new about best practices. I often challenge my coaching clients to incorporate a new behavior that is out of their comfort zone. If you hate conflict, get disciplined around practicing how to respond to it. Practicing self-discipline will definitely help you to build your leadership muscle.

5) Reconsider the Way You Provide Feedback. The way you provide feedback based on a growth mindset is critical for exhibiting grit. In her chapter about hope, Duckworth notes that “language is one way to cultivate hope. But modeling a growth mindset - demonstrating by our actions that we truly believe people can learn to learn - may even more important.”

Here are a couple of examples.

·       When dealing with a challenging employee, try to move from saying something like, “This isn’t your strength. Don’t worry, you can help me on another project” to saying, “I have high standards and I’m holding you to them because I know we can reach them together.”

·       When delegating a new challenging a task, move from saying, “This is hard - don’t feel bad if you can’t do it” to “This is tough - don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet”.

·       And for those of us who are overly enthusiastic, all the time (yup, I’m guilty!), try saying “Amazing job! What one thing could we improve on next time?” instead of, “Great job…you are so talented!

6) Finally, go back to basics…focus on your mission and the why. What are you doing as a leader to ensure that the goals of your organization and your team serve a common purpose? We know that grittier organizations are constantly looking at how to connect work to purpose and this purpose goes beyond personal motivation. Our job as leaders is to constantly reframe the passion and inspiration of our mission. Consider ways to put your mission in front of your stakeholders on a regular basis in creative ways. Put the mission on your agenda, print it to hang outside your door, make sure it is on the back of your business cards.

As a leader, you can model the way to create a “grittier” culture by setting the norms of hard work, passion, persistence, and consistency around your work. “If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a grittier culture.” (Duckworth)

Would you be interested in being a part of a “Think Good Thoughts Book Club? Reply in the comments section and we’ll let you know when our virtual book club starts this Fall.





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