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Developing firefighter grit requires deliberate practice and stretch goals

Grit – an attitude of determination to never give up – is a key predictor of long-term success


How can leaders best encourage and enable those they work with to develop personal grit?

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What factors lead to individuals having great success in their lives? Are talent, innate ability, and expertise the most important factors? Or is success more about passion, perseverance, tenacity and the ability to rise up against failure? In her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” psychology professor Angela Duckworth makes a strong case for the latter.

Through her study of diverse groups, including athletes, entrepreneurs and military academy cadets, Duckworth distills the secret of success to one critical quality – grit.

The key predictor of success

As a graduate student, Duckworth worked with leaders at West Point who were developing methods to predict which candidates would thrive and which would crumble, especially during the intensive seven-week training program cadets experience when they first arrive at academy, known internally as “Beast.”

The West Point admissions process had a system in place to calculate a “Whole Candidate Score,” an assessment that took into account SAT or ACT scores, high school rank, expert appraisal of leadership potential, and objective scores on physical fitness tests. This score, based on innate talent and achievement, was intended as a predicter of who would be most likely to succeed through the four-year program at West Point.

But the Whole Candidate Score did nothing to predict who would successfully make it through Beast. It turned out that talent was not the key factor for success in this brutal initiation period. It was an attitude of determination to never give up – grit.

Fire service applications

Duckworth has spent her professional life researching where grit comes from and how it can be developed in individuals and groups. She ultimately found that grit depends on four factors:

  1. Interest
  2. Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Her findings have much to offer those in the emergency services, either for themselves as individuals, or as leaders of others.

The first quality, interest, is usually not a problem for those who aspire to be firefighters. Talk to most firefighters and they will tell you that they love their jobs; they are passionate about what they do. That firefighting can inspire such passion is proven by the fact that many people do it for little or no pay. And emergency response is inherently interesting. The job involves many different skills, abilities and experiences. No two days are ever exactly alike.

But interest is not enough. The ability to practice skills, even when those skills are not particularly interesting, is a critical factor in developing grit. Effective practice is not just going through the motions, but engaging in focused, whole-hearted, limit-pushing practice that leads to mastery. Weaknesses must be identified and addressed, not just once, but week after week and year after year. Grit has no place for complacency.

To keep such a commitment over time, one must have a deeper sense of purpose beyond just finding something interesting. Usually, this purpose involves the intention to contribute to the well-being of others. For most firefighters, finding purpose in their work is easy, at least at first. Maintaining a sense of purpose over years or decades can be more of a challenge.

Finally, Duckworth explains hope as a factor in long-term success. Hope, and a sense of faith in a larger purpose beyond your current circumstances, are what keep people going during hard times.

Skip labeling, start customizing

None of these traits are functions of innate talent or ability. All of them can be developed with commitment, guidance and support.

Unfortunately, all of them can also be undone through poor leadership.

Sometimes this undoing can result from leaders recognizing and rewarding the wrong things in new recruits. It is tempting to always recognize the obvious stars in any group – the quick study, the biggest and strongest, the “natural.” Some people are gifted with talents that can serve them well as long as they are not allowed to ride the wave of those talents to the detriment of developing real grit for the long haul.

Duckworth describes the need for everyone to engage in deliberate practice, no matter what their innate skill levels might be. This type of practice must be customized for each individual and include a “stretch goal” that requires that person’s full concentration and effort. So instead of running everyone through the exact same drill over and over, and allowing some members to cruise through it effortlessly, design drills for people that actually challenge them. Where they might actually fail, where they will need informative feedback, and the opportunity to try again and improve in order to succeed.

Leaders need to develop a growth mindset as opposed to one that is fixed. It’s easy to quickly label and categorize people: She’s the smartest. He’s the fastest. Once such labels have been applied, they tend to spill over to all expectations about what that person is capable of. But people who come to assume that they must be naturally good at things may not have the grit to double down to achieve against odds when it most matters.

Of course, labeling happens in a negative sense as well. One early mistake can get someone labeled clumsy or careless or just not that smart. That’s a terrible burden to carry when trying to prove oneself. But for those who rise up against such negative expectations, they often do so because of grit.

A leader’s role

How can leaders best encourage and enable those they work with to develop personal grit? They can recognize effort and tenacity along with talent and ability. They can develop individual challenges that ensure that all members have the ability to succeed – and fail. They can give immediate and informative feedback and support efforts to reflect and improve. They can create a culture in which falling twice and getting up three times can be just as admirable as getting it right the first time.

And perhaps most importantly, they can embrace these values for themselves as well and model these behaviors in everything they do. Only then will grit be something that not only individuals have, but which is embedded and valued within the culture itself.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.