What is grit for?

Securing a place to study at university in the late 1980s Romania, then under a communist regime, was not easy. Especially the humanities and social sciences, potential threats to the Party’s ideological dominance, were subject to strict planning to ensure that no more graduates were trained than the numbers needed to fill a few dozen jobs opening up each year. The competition was fierce. You only had one shot at getting in in a given year, by doing well in the written examinations organized by the institution of your choice. Failing meant the choice to wait another year for the chance to take the exams again or give up.

Stepping onto such a coveted platform came with a somewhat unexpected obligation: all female students had to undertake military training for the first three years of their degree, graduating as reservist lieutenants.

Uniforms were issued and one day a week during term-time and for a few weeks at the end of the year, we had to dress up and submit to our theoretical and practical military training. Portrayed as a patriotic duty, this was mostly a chore that all involved conspired to shorten and water down as much as possible.

In contrast, the USA military women interviewed by Shannon Huffman Polson for her book, The grit factor, are truly committed to their mission. They are driven by the desire to serve their country and to excel; they are often trail blazers, the first women to be admitted to undertake a certain level of training, to achieve a qualification, undertake a type of mission, or earn a certain rank in a given branch of the organisation.

Among them are the first woman to become a Lieutenant General, a naval aviator pioneer, a Ranger School graduate, a Brigadier General, the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels, a Lieutenant General and Army’s deputy chief of staff and head of logistics, a Major General and commander of the NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems, the first African American four-star admiral, an Air Force F-16 fighter pilot and Air National Guard member, the first woman to fly in the US Marine Corps, a Coast Guard pilot, a Surgeon General of the Army, the first woman submariner, and one of the first women to fly the Cobra attack helicopter in the Marine Corps, to name a few.

The more highly regarded and exclusive these levels of achievement, the longer it took for women to be allowed to compete for access. And once inside, grudging acceptance rather than warm welcome was the norm.

Evaluating recent findings from social science research and this wealth of first-hand testimonies, Polson argues that grit has been crucial to completing the gruelling training and to handling successfully the charged situations surrounding the exercise of leadership in the military and beyond. This is both an observation and an organising principle for the book, which sets out to elucidate how grit works and how it can be developed.

The volume is organised in eight chapters that build up a veritable grit curriculum, around commitment, learning and execution. Polson suggests that the bedrock of grit ultimately consists of the values that have shaped a particular life trajectory, whether they have been consciously held or not. Reflecting actively on how values have manifested at decisive inflection points along the way can help articulate a personal story, own strengths and weaknesses and move forward with conviction and self-awareness. When the going gets tough, as it invariably does, this is the place of strength we need to connect and reconnect with.

Realistically, fulfilling ambitions and aspirations requires learning and Polson identifies three areas that are especially important for this process: creating a circle of trusted companions for your journey, to provide both honest feed-back and support; sharpening the ability to listen and to read situations accurately, gleaning the salient clues from the environment and using them wisely; and building resilience by cultivating realistic optimism, self-awareness, mental agility and a capacity for self-regulation.

These suggestions are tried and tested, as the testimonies and stories of the military women interviewed for the book show in vivid detail. Equally, Polson’s experience as a pilot fighter provides guiding metaphors that illuminate the mental, emotional mechanisms involved in developing grit and acting in ways that demonstrate it. A case in point is ‘turning your nose to face the wind’, which is also the manoeuvre for take-off. Encountering resistance head-on provides the friction necessary for forward or upward movement, whether resistance takes the form of fear, including your own, or push-back from the environment.

The last couple of chapters return to the question of values and the energy that can be found in authenticity, its power to guide productive, if difficult, choices. This applies also to leaving a formative professional environment, such as the military. Thus, while the book gives us a sense of a community of military women, allowing us to draw on their insights on leadership, resilience and grit, it also takes us into the domain of professional transitions when moving on or moving forward is no longer guided by a well-structured institutional script. Clarity about values, and grit, can help us find an appropriate direction and the strength to succeed outside it.

Validated by the direct experience of peers, checked against current social science scholarship in a variety of fields, the insights shared in the book carry a particular force. They convey an intimate understanding of grit from an author who has taken time and attention over her writing craft, bringing to the task her experience as a climber, pilot fighter, manager in large corporations and now an entrepreneur and speaker.

Thus, grit built around deeply held and honoured personal values is a strong element in the complicated alchemy of attributes and deserved good luck that may help anyone thrive within or outside an organization. This book is a valuable guide and companion for the work of nurturing it.