gritty leadership

Gritty Leadership! Four Strategies for Overcoming Adversity.

In the 1960s, Stanford conducted a series of experiments involving children and marshmallows. This notorious study is now called The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. The goal of the study was to examine the long-term impact of delayed gratification. The short version of the story goes like this. Children were left alone in a room with a single marshmallow. Each child was told that he would receive two marshmallows when the researcher returned if he did not eat the marshmallow.

The gritty kids distracted themselves. They closed their eyes, hummed, and rocked back-and-forth to resist the sugary temptation. Years later, a follow-up study was conducted. It was discovered that those kids who resisted the urge to eat a single marshmallow went on to excel in all areas of life.

They were better students. They had a higher rate of success in their marriages. And they excelled in their careers when compared to children who succumbed to temptation. It appears that a huge secret to success in life is not to eat the marshmallow.

Grittiness matters in leadership and life. The ability to delay gratification, and push through adversity, leads to long-term success. But how do we grow this stick-to-it attitude in our own life? And how do we foster a gritty, marshmallow avoiding, never give-up-attitude in our children?

The ability to delay gratification, and push through adversity, leads to long-term success. Click To Tweet
gritty leadership

This post will dive into four practical strategies to develop a gritty attitude in ourselves, our children, and those we lead.

1. Gritty leaders practice gritty self-talk.

“Self-talk” is the term therapists use to describe the conversations each one of us has, silently, in our head. Negative self-talk discourages grittiness. Examples of negative self-talk include statements like,

  • “I’m a failure.”
  • “I’ll never figure this out.”
  • “This is too hard.”

People with a pattern of negative self-talk often succumb to depression. Negative self-talk will bring you down. On the other hand, positive self-talk can help you push through adversity. Here are two of my favorite, gritty, self-talk statements.

Gritty Self-Talk: Trust the process.

“Trust the process” is a phrase that was seared into my mind by our Graduate School Dean, Dr. Barry Lord. It was his way of encouraging his students to push forward without protest. If you have a big goal, I encourage you to trust the process. Follow in the footsteps of others. Trust that the journey will lead you down a path of growth. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Slow to learn, slow to forget.” There is an abundance of wisdom in those words!

gritty leadership

Gritty Self-Talk: I’ll get there when I get there.

I first heard this self-talk statement from life-coach Sean Smith. “I’ll get there when I get there” is all about doing the work, sticking with it, and not getting upset when the journey takes longer than expected.

Sean proposes that if one keeps doing the work–and continues to learn and grow along the way–that person will eventually reach a higher level. Instead of asking, “How long will it take me to reach my goal?” Gritty leaders get down to business. They do the work, day after day, knowing that with persistence, they will eventually reach their goal.

Leaders who ask, “How long will it take?” get discouraged by delays. They are more likely to give up. 

Gritty leaders keep pressing forward, and eventually reach their goals. Click To Tweet

2. Gritty leaders play the “If/Then Game.”

I talk about the If/Then Game in my book, Coffee Shop Inspirations. I tell the story about a night that I was especially discouraged. It was at 3 am. I was working an overnight shift, and my mind wandered to a discouraging place. For some reason, in the middle of my pity-party, I took out the trash. As silly as this sounds, I thought to myself, I did that really well. And if I can do this part of my job well, I bet that I can do the next part with excellence.

The rest of the evening, I completed one small task at a time. By the end of the night, I felt energized.  The next day, I applied this simple technique to a school paper. I wrote one sentence at a time. After each sentence, I reminded myself, If I can write one sentence well, then I can write the next one with excellence too.

I kept pressing forward–one sentence at a time–until the assignment was complete. The If/Then Game is all about breaking large tasks into smaller parts. Each small success is celebrated along the way.

gritty leadership

3. Gritty leaders don’t give up. They pivot. 

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Refusing to give up can lead to living out this definition of insanity. But it doesn’t have to. There is a better way.

Giving up, and doing the same thing over and over again, are not the only options. They are two extremes on a much broader continuum. Wise leaders don’t give up. They don’t keep doing the same things over and over again, either. Instead, Wise leaders pivot.

A pivot is a slight shift in direction. I made a pivot in my life when I shifted from pastoral work to counseling.  I pivoted again when I started this blog. My goals of supporting others, honoring God, and growing as a leader, never changed. However, my means of pursuing these goals took a shift.

Gritty people don’t give up. 

4. Gritty leaders get inspired by other gritty leaders.

Gritty leadership is all over the Bible. I think of David–a shepherd, warrior, and king–who bounced back from one failure after another. His life is messy. Yet David continued to pursue God and is ultimately known as “a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).”

History is filled with gritty leaders who would not be denied. While writing my first book, I came across a story about a gritty college student who graduated and couldn’t find a job. Instead of becoming discouraged, this young man moved to Alaska. He worked, saved, paid off college debts, and returned to earn his Master’s Degree. While attending graduate school, he lived in his van, wrote a book, worked, and graduated debt-free. Now that is grit!

Ken Ilgunas was kind enough to let me include an abbreviated version of his story in my book Coffee Shop Conversations: Psychology and the Bible. You can dive into his full story in Ken’s book, Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom.

As you can see, grit matters. The good news is this invaluable quality can be developed in ourselves, our children, and those we lead. Have you tried any of these tools? If so, how have they worked for you? Finally, how are you fostering a gritty attitude in yourself and those around you?  I’m excited to hear from you and look forward to continuing our discussion on gritty leadership in the comments below!

Jed Jurchenko

Jed Jurchenko is the husband to an incredible wife, daddy to four amazing girls, and a foster dad to one more. He's served as a children's pastor, marriage and family therapist, psychology professor, award-winning writing coach, and life coach. Jed is the author of 23 books on relationships, parenting, writing, and doing life well. In his free time, you'll find Jed reading, preparing for an upcoming marathon, barbecuing, paddle boarding, and enjoying life with his incredible family. Find out more about Jed's books, coaching, and courses at

4 thoughts on “Gritty Leadership! Four Strategies for Overcoming Adversity.”

  1. Jed, great post!

    I enjoy the reality and honesty the most.

    The best of leaders face the same hardships as everyone else (in essence), yet it is their mindset that motivates them on to being a great leader. It is not leading that is the primary characteristic of a great leader, it is the wisdom to hunker down, access the situation and utilize the resources at hand to succeed. Ironically, these leaders are more interested in placing others success above their own. I know you can relate to that mentality, but are to humble to place yourself in that category. So, I will.

    This post is a tribute to your learning what it means to be a great leader in Gods plan for you. It took grit to finish this post, and it will take grit to finish the next. Know that the Lord is pleased with your grit. He has given you a podium to countless individuals.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts (and actions) on true grit. Don’t forget, true grit is only one choice away. Keep at it 🙂

    1. Thanks Joshua,

      I sure appreciate the encouragement and kind words 🙂

      Yes, grit has been a theme these last few weeks. Life has been busier than ever. However, pushing forward in spite of all of the hustle-and-bustle has been more than worth it. It’s been fun making some new connections and diving deeper into some older friendships.

      Thanks for an excellent guest post too! I’m excited to feature you on this site.

  2. I’ll relate my thoughts with the example of working out again, only because it’s concrete and, therefore, easier for people to visualize and internalize.

    1. As I commented on your last post, hitting the gym is never something I look forward to. I enjoy the mental and physical results, but not the process. Ever. So there is a lot of positive self-talk that comes into it, and much of that relates to your Point #2.

    2. The first battle is getting dressed for the gym. Once I’m in my gym clothes, I feel like I’m “ready” for the gym, even though it’s 95% psychological. Then I put a sports drink or bottle of water in my backpack, thinking If I don’t go, I’m going to have to put this back and admit defeat.” Then I get in my car and start driving. But the battle isn’t really won until I’ve driven 10 minutes and hit the highway. So I think of anything BUT the gym until then, having last thought If I can get to the highway, I know I’ll keep driving.” I’m not even kidding. This is how it is. And I go six times a week.

    3. I just came back from a cruise to the Bahamas. They had a fitness center and gym onboard. Talk about the perfect opportunity to excuse yourself to “quit” for the week! You’re surrounded by unlimited food 24/7 and people who are generally out of shape, which is a temptation to also excuse yourself by comparison (e.g., “I can afford a week off; most of these people never go”). But I went. Every day. I “pivoted,” because they didn’t have the weight sizes or machines I’m used to; but I made it work, in order to stay on track (and I met some of my favorite people on the cruise there, as well!).

    4. If you are willing to talk to other people at the gym, there are many opportunities to teach / mentor and to learn. This is the biggest advantage, if you can swing it, to working out in a gym rather than at home.

    And, of course, the above apply to all areas of life, not just working out!

    Reading this post and also Joshua’s comment below, it occurred to me that blog posts like this also serve several of the purposes you’ve listed, Jed. I don’t have a lot of people in life who encourage me to stay on track, think positively, etc. I generally serve that role, but even many of my closest friends are “quitters,” whose advice to themselves and others would be the opposite of what you’ve written:

    Oh well, at least you tried.

    No one expects you to do that. Just let it go.

    In starting, you learned something I’m sure. That’s enough.

    They mean well. And there is even truth to be found in some of those statements, when tempered with wisdom; but I find there are very few people who will encourage “grit” as you’ve called it. That comes down to self-talk for me, and great reminders along the way. (Thanks!)

    1. Great examples Erik! And it sounds like you had a blast in the Bahamas.

      You add some very great content to the conversation too. I hadn’t thought about how it’s normal to encourage quitting in our culture. “Oh well, at least you tried,” and those other phrases, are pretty common. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I made similar statements myself, at one time or another, thinking that I was helping someone re-frame their circumstances. You are right, I see how statements like the, could be viewed as permission to quit. I’m going to have to become more aware of not making similar statements.

      Erik, you got me thinking. I’m wondering how each of those statements could be modified to keep the empathy–which I like–and encourage grit at the same time. Thanks for sharpening my thinking on this topic 🙂

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