Leadership, True Grit, and Employee Engagement

Leadership, True Grit, and Employee Engagement

December 10, 2015

“Looking back is a bad habit,” John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn said in the 1969 classic, True Grit.  Few characters have come so close exemplifying such unflinching determination. Wayne’s personal mystique and frequent characterizations were of an independent leader, an individual who could and would do what it took, and would do what was right. He was the manifestation of grit and confidence.

Being a leader is all about these unspoken behaviors and attitudes. A colleague of mine used to call it “the fishbowl” because everyone in the workplace observes you from every angle. Your team is watching you for cues, not only about what to do, but even about how to feel about the issues they face. Your actions and attitudes create the template for everyone else.
In his recent Inc.com article, “7 Habits of People with Remarkable Mental Toughness,” Jeff Haden lists the qualities of successful people that contribute not only to their success, but also to their resilience. He includes:

  1. Always act as if you are in total control.
  2. Put aside things you have no ability to impact.
  3. See the past as valuable training and nothing more.
  4. Celebrate the successes of others.
  5. Never allow yourself to whine. (Or complain. Or criticize.)
  6. Focus only on impressing yourself.
  7. Count your blessings.

Haden views these as the components of “grit” which he defines as, “The ability to work hard and respond resiliently to failure and adversity; the inner quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals.” Sounds a lot like Wayne’s character to me, alright.

But these are also excellent examples of the qualities that inspire others in the workplace, driving employee engagement through leadership.

In thinking back over the senior leaders in the organizations I’ve worked for, the managers who were most successful in engaging their teams and lifting their departments to greater success were able to:

  1. Lead with confidence.
  2. Create achievable goals that moved everyone in the right direction.
  3. Not get bogged down with blaming, just get the job done.
  4. Acknowledge success when it happens and recognize those who made it happen.

In that ever-important fishbowl, leading with calmness and confidence teaches others to react with problem-solving, instead of finger-pointing when things get tough. It also teaches the entire team to prioritize solutions instead of wasting time mired in the whys and “what ifs” of the problem. That frees employees to do their best, to think creatively, and to be assured that their contributions make the difference and are recognized.

I’ve been lucky to observe some great leaders in the fishbowl. They didn’t saunter in off the range like John Wayne, but they certainly borrowed a little of that steady determination. And none of them ever gave me a moment’s doubt it was all going to turn out just fine. Their grit and resilience gave us all confidence.