by MSG Alexis Sprakties, US Army
Recent research suggests that to master a skill, a person must devote 10,000 hours of practice to that skill, which would take ten years to complete. If skills required by the Army take thousands of hours to develop, this research suggests a person’s grit, which is the passion and perseverance in achieving long-term goals, would be the best predictor of success (Doskoch & Carlin, 2005). Dr. Angela Duckworth defined grit in 2007 and was the first to study the correlation between grit and success in school, the Army, and the corporate world. Grit encompasses a combination of personality traits and behavioral attributes, including perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, resilience, adaptability, hardiness, passion, and the ability to play the long game despite obstacles and setbacks.
Another key feature of grit is that it involves stamina rather than short-term intensity when achieving long-term goals without an incentive or immediate gratification (Hardy, 2015). Research also suggests that individuals can cultivate grit. In the age of instant gratification via devices and social media, developing grit may be more important to prepare the less resilient younger generations for success in future endeavors (Doskoch & Carlin, 2005). Senior Army leadership has recently identified grit as a desirable trait in soldiers and leaders. This paper will examine studies that show how grit correlates with success in military performance, strategies for cultivating grit both individually and as an organization, and how nurturing it is crucial to ensure Soldiers and leaders are prepared for the complexities of the operating environments (OE) of the future (Hardy, 2015).
Studies prove grit is an adequate predictor of retention and military achievement. Dr. Duckworth conducted one of the first grit studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She sought to determine whether cadets with elevated levels of grit had a greater chance of success during the grueling initial summer training known as Beast Barracks. During this study, she administered the Grit Scale to the cadets, a 12-question test measuring individual grit levels. The Grit Scale is a self-assessment that aims to capture consistency of interest and perseverance of effort (Buller, 2012).
The Grit Scale proved to be an adequate predictor of which cadets would complete the Beast Barracks, as cadets who assessed one standard deviation higher than average on the Grit Scale were 32% more likely to complete the rigorous training. Furthermore, the Grit Scale was a better predictor of success than the Whole Candidates Score system, a combination of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), leadership potential, and physical aptitude exam scores used in the West Point admissions process.
Additionally, The Grit Scale accurately predicted high achievement in U.S. Military Academy-specific skills and physical performance scores for four years. Grit enabled the cadets to endure mental and physical fatigue and the self-control needed to stay the course and complete the four years to graduate (Hardy, 2015).
A study of candidates from the Special Operation Forces selection course also revealed a correlation between possessing high grit levels and graduating from the course. The candidates who attend this rigorous 24-day course must complete a timed land navigation course carrying heavy loads, and more than half drop out before the end. However, those who scored above average on the Grit Scale had 32% higher odds of completing the course and were less likely to withdraw voluntarily. This example also illustrates that possessing components of grit, such as stamina, perseverance, and resilience, is critical to completing military training (Eskreis-Winkler et al., 2014).
One of the drawbacks of the Grit Scale test is that it is a self-assessment with some inherent subjectivity. In addition, a Soldier may possess some innate grit but come from a sheltered upbringing and yet to overcome real adversity. Fortunately, grit is based on nature and nurture; in other words, Soldiers do not necessarily need to be born with substantial amounts of grit and can cultivate it through experience (Hardy, 2015).
To develop grit and prepare for multi-domain operations with fluctuating OEs and adaptable adversaries, Soldiers need more than online and “check the box” training. For maximum grit growth, Soldiers need tough, realistic scenario-based training. More realistic training opportunities must include varying OEs, including land, sea, urban, rural, and cyber domains, along with training in adverse weather conditions. Additionally, Soldiers must train for contingencies to be agile, adaptive, and grittier. For example, they must be prepared to use analog systems if a GPS or Smartphone is non-functional (Magnuson, 2022).
To build grit, Soldiers must also have a clearly defined goal and deliberately practice the skills required to achieve that goal until the process is fluent while resisting complacency. Deliberate practice is the act of practicing skills above one’s current level and comfort zone. Soldiers must practice a skill not until they get it right but until they cannot get it wrong. Many studies show that experts are not born, but people can become experts at a skill through years of repetition employing the deliberate practice method (Ericsson et al., 2007).
Soldiers also need increased opportunities for learning experiences and training opportunities to take them out of their comfort zones. In addition, leaders must cultivate a climate that allows for failure in training. Finally, Soldiers and leaders must possess self-awareness and be willing to constantly assess progress toward their goals, adapt to the changing OE, and possess resiliency to bounce back from any obstacles (Hardy, 2015).
Master Resilience Training
Resilience is the ability to face obstacles and overcome adversity and is a key component of grit. The U.S. Army implemented the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program in 2009, which included the development of the Master Resiliency Trainer (MRT) course in response to the increase in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (Polson, 2020). The 10-day MRT course teaches leaders resilience skills and teaches them how to train their Soldiers using the train the trainer model. MRT-trained Non-Commissioned Officers have been the primary vehicle for disseminating MRT concepts to the entire Army (Reivich et al., 2011).
The course targets six core competencies to build resilience and examines how resilience enables leaders to lead effectively and live the Warrior Ethos. The core competencies taught in the MRT course are the mental components of grit, including optimism, self-regulation, self-awareness, and mental agility (Polson, 2020).
The competency of optimism is a crucial component of grit and is necessary to survive the challenges of military life. An optimistic Soldier focuses on the positives of a situation and does not become paralyzed by perceived worst-case scenarios while having a realistic understanding of the situation. One example of an MRT exercise to improve optimism is hunting the good stuff, which involves recording three good things that happened each day and reflecting on why and how these good things are happening. This exercise can assist in building the mindset needed for grit (Polson, 2020).
Admiral James Stockdale is an example of a military leader who displayed optimism while having a realistic understanding of the situation. Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years and endured consistent torturing. Nevertheless, he stayed positive and helped the other prisoners maintain faith while confronting the brutal facts of the situation. In addition, he inspired hope by implementing a few coping mechanisms for the other prisoners, including a tapping code that enabled the prisoners to communicate with one another. This coping mechanism helped the prisoners avoid isolation and remain optimistic (Polson, 2020).
Another crucial MRT competency that assists in developing the grit mindset is self-regulation. To improve the ability to self-regulate, in other words, the ability to manage emotions, Soldiers can strive to stop counterproductive thinking by imagining a realistic worst-case scenario and practicing a calm response in the face of failure. In addition, an effective measure of self-regulation is to eliminate distractions by compartmentalization before a mission. For example, if a Soldier had a fight with a spouse before a mission, they could visualize putting the concern into a box and focus on the task at hand. They can also create a checklist, daily routine, or ritual to perform the same before every mission. These examples illustrate simple techniques Soldiers can practice daily to build resilience and eventually become grittier (Polson, 2020).
Grit and Arts
Soldiers can also develop greater resilience and grit over time through the act of creating, such as songwriting, playing an instrument like guitar or drums, singing, songwriting, drawing, painting, filmmaking, and photography. Engaging in these activities teaches mindfulness and can assist with emotional regulation, increasing a Soldier’s resilience, especially during deployment and post-deployment periods. Additionally, the arts can be cathartic as they give Soldiers an outlet to express experiences and struggles, thereby allowing them to achieve inner peace by eliminating counterproductive thoughts (Quinn, 2014).
The 82nd Airborne Division Band and Chorus provides a music wellness class that consists of guitar lessons for Soldiers recovering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other illnesses and injuries at the Fort Bragg Soldier Recovery Unit. The lessons culminate with the injured Soldiers coming together and performing a joint concert with the 82nd Airborne Division Band and Chorus. These music wellness classes have proven to increase the resilience the injured Soldiers need for effective rehabilitation and reconditioning (Aurigema, 2021). Army Bands in theater can apply this model to partner with other deployed units and offer a similar program. This program could provide guitar lessons and opportunities for Soldiers to jam side-by-side with Band Soldiers. This could be another resilience-building outlet available to deployed Soldiers besides the required resilience training. Soldiers who partake in realistic training, receive regular MRT training, and have a creative outlet, will possess greater resilience and a better chance of developing grit.
Building Organizational Grit
Leaders of an organization should not only strive to develop individual grit but also inculcate an environment that enables the development of grit. Soldiers have a greater chance of developing grit if they belong to an organization with a culture where the shared values and norms espouse perseverance, hardiness, and positivity (Duckworth, 2016). For instance, suppose Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division pride themselves on completing physical readiness training (PRT) daily in the snow and sub-zero temperatures. In that case, performing PRT in the snow will be the expectation of how the organization operates. Based on this theory, a hard-core unit like this will eventually develop hard-core Soldiers.
Leaders must define team values. For example, the most successful soccer coach of all time, Anson Dorrance, required each player to memorize three literary quotes to communicate different core values. Next, he required the players to recite one of the core values and reflect on the meaning to the team. Memorizing core values is also a tradition at West Point. One of the most important values espoused there is leading from the front, in other words modeling the grit leaders require from their subordinates (Duckworth, 2016). In addition to leading from the front and communicating core values, leaders must build inclusive teams and hone coaching and mentoring skills to ensure their organization is developing collective grit.
Coaching and Mentoring
To assist in developing grittier Soldiers, leaders need to be engaged and take a holistic approach to Soldier development. Leaders achieve this by acknowledging the Soldier’s unique needs and individual strengths and weaknesses. Everyone needs a mentor, including senior leaders, preferably a mentor who is the subject matter expert of the mentee’s field and is a champion of the mentee’s cause. Every unit must implement a counseling program where monthly counseling of every Soldier takes place – not just going through the motions. However, a counseling session where goal setting takes place, and the mentor assists in clearing the path to reach the set goals. Mentoring should also happen organically throughout the day through battlefield circulation, during which senior leaders get out from behind their desks, walk around the organizational footprint, and check in on Soldiers doing the work (Polson, 2020).
To be influential mentors, leaders must listen to understand versus just waiting to talk, ask questions, and consider subordinates’ perspectives. Mentees should not be afraid to ask for help and accept guidance. An organization with a climate that promotes knowledge exchange and allows Soldiers to make mistakes in training and learn from those mistakes will contain more cohesive teams. An organization with this climate will be on a path to becoming grittier (Polson, 2020).
Team cohesion and inclusivity are key to cultivating a grittier organization. General McConville implemented a “people first” action plan in 2019, which places Soldier welfare as the highest priority. To align with that action plan, Sergeant Major of the Army Grinston emphasized the importance of team cohesion and putting the welfare of Soldiers first when he introduced the This is My Squad concept (Brading, 2020). This concept stresses the importance of disciplined teams that have each other’s back and treat each other with dignity and respect. For maximum cohesion in a squad, all members must have a role and ownership in the mission. They also must have shared values among the teammates that align with organizational values, and there must be solid mentorship from senior leaders. Squads/teams employing the concept of This is My Squad will be grittier and better equipped to persevere in austere environments (Tan, 2021).
Many examples exist from World War II of leaders possessing grit and successfully building gritty teams. One example is Field Marshal Viscount Slim, a gritty leader who transformed the Fourteenth Army into a gritty organization able to defy all odds and achieve victory against the Japanese in 1945. He overcame many challenges to become an officer, as he was only marginally intelligent, possessed little physical prowess, and overcame many medical setbacks throughout his career. His passion and perseverance for soldiering, in other words, grit, kept him going. In addition, his concern and empathy for the welfare of enlisted Soldiers, which he demonstrated when he bought food for them out of his own pocket to supplement their meager rations, strengthened the bonds within his team. He trained his men in multiple OEs to be prepared to fight increasingly more complex adversaries. He also cross-trained his men to prepare them for all contingencies and ensured that the lowest-ranking Soldier understood the organization’s values and goals. These examples illustrate how Field Marshall Slim built grit within his organization, leading to victory over Japan in 1945 after a previously failed campaign (Fontaine, 2017). This example of gritty leadership provides many lessons learned to inspire today’s leaders to overcome challenges in the current OE.
This paper examined studies that showed how grit correlates with success in military performance, strategies for cultivating grit both individually and as an organization, and how nurturing it is crucial to ensure Soldiers and leaders are prepared for the complexities of the OEs of the future. Soldiers can develop grit through realistic training, deliberate practice, MRT training, and creative outlets. Along with individually building grit, leaders must develop and sustain organizational grit through defining organizational values, mentorship, and building cohesive and inclusive teams to prepare for the rigors of the ever-changing OEs. Leaders of past wars, such as Admiral Stockdale and Field Marshal Slim, are examples of the importance of grit in military success, which is applicable on today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields.
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Master Sergeant Alexis Sprakties is currently a student at the Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, TX. She has served in numerous duty positions throughout her 17-year career as an Army Bandsman. Her most recent position was as First Sergeant of the 10th Mountain Division Band, Fort Drum, NY. MSG Sprakties holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, and a Master of Music from the Mannes College of Music, New York, NY.
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