Strengthening Moral Grit: Leadership Training 101

The term, モuse it or lose it,ヤ applies as much to character muscles as it does to physical muscles.

By Jim Loehr, Ph.D., Co-Founder, Human Performance Institute Division of Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company

Angela Duckworth and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania are steadily building the case for the critical importance of persistence in the formula of long-term success. The name they give it? Grit. Individuals high in grit are able to sustain passion and commitment toward a goal in spite of any adversity or obstacles. Such individuals show determination and commitment, regardless of challenges and set-backs. According to Duckworth’s research findings, the grittier a person is, the greater the likelihood of goal attainment (Angela Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, Dennis R. Kelly, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No 6), American Psychological Association, 2007).

For us at the Human Performance Institute Division of Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company, the reason grit is so critical to goal attainment is that it addresses one’s willingness and ability to invest energy in the targeted goal. The critical factor in the persistence/grit construct is energy investment. The central focus of this article will be establishing the importance of persistence, of sustained energy investment (grit) in building the moral/ethical competency of leaders.

Moral Behavior as a Leadership Competency

From our more than two decades of work at the Human Performance Institute with thousands of executives from nearly every sector of business, we’ve concluded that the single most important competency required in successful leadership is in the moral/ethical realm. And we are clearly not alone in this assertion. Scores of researchers such as Jim Collins and Richard Kilbury produce compelling evidence supporting this contention (Richard Kilbury, “Virtuous Leaders,” American Psychological Association, 2012; Jim Collins, “Built to Last,” HarperCollins, 2004).

Most CEOs and C-suite executives heartily agree, as well. The problem is that companies are investing little energy in building the moral strength of their leaders in comparison to developing other leadership competencies such as change management, strategic planning, and effective communications. Daily newspapers are filled with corporate scandals. And, in fact, the most devastating examples of business failure often are traceable to moral/ethical breakdowns (think Enron, WorldCom, etc.). So the question is: Why have companies not displayed more grit when it comes to building the moral competency of their leadership?

Training Character Muscles

The main reason companies don’t invest as much time and energy in strengthening the moral competency of their leaders is not because they deem it of less importance, but because considerable confusion exists in terms of how to do it practically. In the words of one CEO, “I’m convinced of the importance of moral competency, but what would that training look like? What kind of training would really work and be accepted by our leaders?”

At the Human Performance Institute, the moral training breakthrough came for us when we defined moral competency in terms of specific character muscles. Just as the muscles of the body must be regularly exercised to maintain or grow physical strength, so too, must the muscles of integrity, honesty, gratitude, humility, respect for others, etc. be exercised to maintain or grow character strength. The term, “use it or lose it,” applies as much to character muscles as it does to physical muscles.

For training purposes, it’s been useful to conceptualize two types of character strengths. The first is moral/ethical, and the second is performance. Moral character strengths define the values that govern our relationship with others, such as caring, kindness, honesty, truthfulness, integrity, humility, gratitude, fairness, generosity, compassion, loyalty, and respect for others. Performance character strengths define the values that govern our relationship with ourselves. These would include self-control, confidence, optimism, focus, decisiveness, determination, mental toughness, ambition, and resiliency. Bernie Madoff and core leaders at WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, Arthur Andersen, the Nixon White House, etc., possessed an impressive list of individual performance character strengths, but they appeared to suffer from decided weaknesses of moral/ethical character. They didn’t have the proper training, and as a result, their businesses suffered.

Energy Deposits that Strengthen Character Muscles

Both moral and performance character strengths are built in the same way muscles of the body grow: repeated energy investment. Here are six strategies companies can use to enhance moral competency in their leadership.

1. Debating Moral Dilemmas: Have leaders regularly debate real-life ethical challenges using the company’s code of ethics (mission statement) and their own value systems as references. Questions such as, “What is the right thing to do when presented with this situation?” can be highly instructive, particularly when the issues raised are common in their industry.

2. Talking: Researcher Dan Ariely found that simply being reminded of moral codes has a significant effect on how we view our own behavior (Dan Ariely, “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty,” Harper, 2012). Repeatedly talking about the importance of a particular character trait, such as honesty, caring, respect for others, or humility, causes energy to flow in the direction of that character muscle. The more leaders reference moral/ethical character traits in their everyday conversations at work, the more they stimulate growth in these areas in themselves and can influence others to do the same.

3. Doing: The single most direct way to invest energy in a specific character muscle is to “just do it.” To grow caring, for example, have members of your work team perform at least one act of kindness in the workplace each week. To build employee generosity, allow employees to invest their skills and talents in a charitable cause four hours per month and provide a report of this investment.

4. Reading: From scripture to the great books, from a single powerful quotation to targeted affirmations, reading is an effective method of learning about and cultivating character. Feeding employees a steady diet of articles and book excerpts sends a powerful message that ethics matter to your firm. Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel’s book, “Moral Intelligence 2.0” (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011), is a great example of material that can be used for leadership growth.

5. Writing: One of the most powerful forms of energy investment for stimulating cognitive growth is writing. Having leaders respond in writing to questions such as:

  • How is integrity displayed in our company?
  • How do our clients build trust in this company?
  • Why is humility important in our leaders?
  • How do leaders show genuine caring for those they lead?

Collect their written answers and read them in team meetings for discussion and inspiration.

6. Energizing: Self-control researcher Roy Baumeister uses the words, “ego depletion,” to refer to mental fatigue that reduces peoples’ capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions (Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower,” Penguin Press, 2011). Encouraging leaders to eat a low-glycemic meal or snack every three to four hours to stabilize glucose levels, to get seven to eight hours of sleep, and to exercise and move regularly to ensure adequate oxygen to neurons of the brain mitigates against the forces of fatigue that can undermine their moral grit.

Jim Loehr, Ph.D., is the co-founder of the Human Performance Institute Division of Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company. He is a world-renowned performance psychologist and the author of 16 books. He is also co-author of the national bestseller, “The Power of Full Engagement and The Corporate Athlete Advantage.” Dr. Loehr has trained many of the most recognizable leaders in business today, as well as elite performers in sport, law enforcement, and medicine. His latest book, “The Only Way to Win,” is currently available from Hyperion.

Training Top 125

2017 Training Top 125 winners demonstrated a strong focus on effective training and employee development tied to corporate strategic goals and business impact.

Digital Issue

Click above for Training Magazine's
current digital issue

Training Live + Online Certificate Programs

Now You Can Have Live Online Access to Training magazine's Most Popular Certificate Programs! Click here for more information.

Emerging Training Leaders


Spectacular. Impressive. Dazzling.

Spring is—finally—in the air.

By Lorri Freifeld

ISA Directory