Do You Have Grit or Are You Just a Stubborn Jerk? Here's How to Know the Difference



Imagine a sports car with a powerful engine that can go 140 miles an hour. 

Now imagine you’re behind the wheel, driving as hard as you can–and so focused on the speedometer that you barely notice you’re heading off a cliff.

This is the difference between having grit, a positive trait that is sort of the business buzzspeak phrase of the era, and just being stubborn–maybe even self-destructive. 

It’s bad enough when you’re acting for yourself, but this becomes a big issue when you’re in a position of leadership dragging others along for the ride.

“Everyone was angry or annoyed…”

So say a growing number of business leaders, workplace psychologists–and frankly, many of the people who actually have to work with some of the stubborn leaders.

“Excess grittiness can derail your career,” Mary Herrmann, managing director of executive coaching for BPI Group, told Joann Lublin of The Wall Street Journal recently, adding that many of her firm’s executive coaching assignments involve executives who get new jobs or promotions.

The problem? They find themselves acting “too passionate toward their goal,” and simply annoying everyone else they have to work with.

At one health care company, for example, a vice-president realized that she was getting nowhere pushing an unpopular vision for their organization–to the point where she was “alienating team members,” according to the Journal. “Everyone was angry or annoyed.”

Passion and perseverance

The hipness of the idea of “grit” as a trait of successful people, defined as “passion and perseverance toward long-term goals,” can be traced to a widely watched TED talk (8 million views) by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth.

In a nutshell, she argues that talent and intelligence are inferior predictors of success compared to simple grit. However, this misses two much more important steps:

  1. having worthy goals, and 
  2. developing smart strategies to achieve them. 

It’s also–let’s be honest–a comforting explanation for some successful people who don’t want to admit that they’ve had major advantages in life–and instead like to attribute their achievements to vision and hard work. 

(“Born on third base, thinks he hit a triple,” to quote the late Molly Ivins.)

Don’t be the stubborn jerk

Passion and tenacity are in fact valuable traits–as is the notion of grit. But how do you know if you’re gritty or just bull-headed?

“Experts recommend that overly gritty types also seek frank feedback about their behavior from internal mentors, business acquaintances or knowledgeable relatives,” the WSJ suggested.

Or maybe just ask your employees and colleagues. (Guaranteed, they know.) 

In the meantime, the truth is you probably know the answer. And if you don’t, start by asking yourself the following difficult questions:

1.         Is the goal you are passionately and tenaciously pursuing truly worth your efforts?

2.         Stepping beyond yourself, is your objective truly worth the time and efforts of other people on your team?

3.         Can you articulate clearly and convincingly why the objective is a better use of time and effort than all the other things your team could be doing?

4.         Is there a consensus about feasibility? Is there a real chance you’re tilting at windmills, and insisting that others follow your lead into something that won’t wind up with a good outcome?

5.         Finally, are you able to point to times when you’ve admitted mistakes and shifted your position intelligently, based on feedback from others?



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