Organizational Grit


Organizational Grit

by Thomas H. Lee and Angela Duckworth | Grit

Why we love it:
 This Harvard Business Review article explains how gritty, high-achieving teams and organizations, like individuals, have well-defined goal hierarchies.  

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that organizations are the lengthened shadows of their leaders. To attract employees, build teams, and develop an organizational culture that all have grit, leaders should personify passion and perseverance—providing a visible, authoritative role model for every other person in the organization. And in their personal interactions, they too must be both demanding—keeping standards high—and supportive.

Consider Toby Cosgrove. He was a diligent student but, because he had dyslexia that was undiagnosed until his mid-thirties, his academic record was lackluster. Nevertheless, he set his sights on medical school, applying to 13. Just one, the University of Virginia, accepted him. In retrospect, “the dyslexia reinforced my determination and persistence,” Cosgrove told us, “because I had to work more hours than anybody else to get the same result.”

In 1968, Cosgrove’s surgical residency was interrupted when he was drafted. He served a two-year tour as a U.S. Air Force surgeon in Vietnam. Upon his return home, he completed his residency and then joined Cleveland Clinic in 1975. “Everybody told me not to become a heart surgeon,” he said. “I did it anyway.” Indeed, Cosgrove performed more cardiac surgeries (about 22,000) than any of his contemporaries. He pioneered several technologies and innovations, including minimally invasive mitral valve surgery, earning more than 30 patents.

Cosgrove’s development as a world-class surgeon is a case study in grit. “I was informed that I was the least talented individual in my residency. But failure is a great teacher. I worked and worked and worked at refining the craft,” he told us. “I changed the way I did things over time. I used to take what I called ‘innovation trips’—trips all over the world to watch other surgeons and their techniques. I’d pick things up from them and incorporate them in my practice. I was on a constant quest to find ways to do things better.”

Cosgrove was named CEO of Cleveland Clinic in 2004. The passion and perseverance that made him great as a surgeon and as the head of a cardiac care team would soon be tested in his new role as leader of more than 43,000 employees. “I decided I had to become a student of leadership,” Cosgrove recalls. “I had stacks of books on leadership, and every night when I came home, I would go up to my little office and read. And then I called up Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter.” Porter, widely considered the father of the modern field of strategy, invited Cosgrove to visit. “He talked with me for two hours. After that, I got him to come to Cleveland. Since then, we’ve been sharing ideas,” Cosgrove says. Porter helped him understand that as CEO he needed to be more than a renowned surgeon and an enthusiastic leader. He needed to evolve the organization’s strategy, focusing on how to create value for patients and achieve competitive differentiation in the process.