John Lewis: Grit in Service to Public Life

How Civic Grit Builds Community and Fights Failure

Grit is a funny word. When someone says it, there’s almost always a guttural growl or a sneer added. When we say grit, we feel it.

A small group of early-stage entrepreneurs had persisted through a weekend workshop titled Guts, Grit and Impact. It was a story-filled weekend. Obstacles were met, managed and overcome.

A group dinner on the last night included asking questions and sharing answers, all with a glass of wine in hand. One question I still remember is, “what’s your favorite story about grit?” Silence. We exchanged glances and made faces. Perhaps we had hit a show-stopper.

I made a decision to quietly sit this one out. Who has a “story of Grit” at the top of their mind? But then, without thinking too hard about it, I knew exactly whose picture and story I connected with when asking myself what it means to have grit: Congressman John Lewis.

That was not the entrepreneurial story anyone was expecting.

Lewis has represented his district in Georgia, including most of Atlanta, since 1987. His career of standing up for what’s right started more than twenty years earlier when he served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the youngest civil rights leaders at that time. What I see when I see his image is a man that still chose to serve people through a government that failed to protect him over and over again. He had studied to be a preacher.

A question I wanted to avoid now prompted me to think about a separate category for civic grit. Or a spectrum with other variables to consider for measuring relative grittiness.

The Gritty Details

The answers from the rest of the table were better than expected too. I learned about Ignaz Semmelweis who, in the early days of scientific medicine, discovered that hand-washing could save lives. No one believed him. He persisted, lost his job and landed in an insane asylum where he died from an infection that could have been prevented. He understood the problem and insisted that a solution was possible but no one listened.

The weekend had also included the story of a CEO who held out and refused multiple offers to sell her company. She had built a successful software business that supported nonprofits and she insisted on a good price. Board members — men who had a stake in the sale — let her know that people who knew how business worked thought she was being foolish and unreasonable. She stuck to her own assessment and proved her prowess by meeting with the would-be buyer, naming her price, holding out a bit longer and then getting what she wanted.

All were good stories. I still decided I had the best answer of them all. I think the difference lies in who you’re confronting, what’s at stake and who you’re carrying with you.

“…grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity.

—Angela Duckworth, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success

Grit: A Firmness of Character. Indomitable Spirit

Working with the dictionary’s first descriptor, “a firmness of character,” all three cases seem to pass this test. What was Semmelweis if not firm? He committed himself to the science of infection. The CEO stood resolute in her commitment to the work of her team and the support of her stakeholders. She believed they deserved the maximum value available. The picture of resolute firmness is, of course, the picture of John Lewis standing face-to-face with law enforcement on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.

The distinction comes in the second part of the phrase — different types of character reside in thinking through what this show of strength stands up to and why.

There is the character we each assess of ourselves and work to maintain through a consistency in our beliefs and actions. We confront our own weaknesses. That consistency becomes evidence of our self-awareness. It provides strength when challenged by people doubting our abilities. A CEO succeeds or fails on having the individual character to withstand those who doubt them. She confronted doubters with her belief in herself. Semmelweis, maintaining his consistent beliefs through the scientific method, confronted disbelief. John Lewis confronted his oppressors and accepted that they would do violence to him.

There is the character we look for in a leader, someone we can rely on to look out for the best interests of a larger group. The CEO weighed the returns for her investors and her employees. She wanted a meaningful return-on-investment for the people who had believed in her. Semmelweis looked to make a difference by preventing unnecessary deaths. He had a professional responsibility to these women even if he had never met them.

John Lewis looks out for the American people. Civic character is found in a commitment to community. He has never had professional, financial or even individual responsibility to the people who would be his beneficiaries. Civic character requires looking beyond familiar faces and previous grievances to persist in believing we can build a better community together.

Then there’s something about the odds they faced. To be indomitable, you have to willingly confront failure.

Civic Grit Fights Failure

Digging to learn more about what grit means, I could not escape a book by Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She defines passion as “sustained, enduring devotion.” It is more than simply showing up everyday. You have to show up with a purpose. For civic grit, this purpose comes through a commitment to a shared community.

This sense of purpose makes it possible to confront the odds and to continue to fight through failure. Duckworth writes:

“Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eye, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied.

—Angela Duckworth, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success

For the CEO, failure represented a potential outcome and a financial loss. It would be difficult to accept but not impossible to overcome. Semmelweis and Lewis were both surrounded by failure. It had already happened and continued despite their struggle to stop it. Entrenched practices and inequality had control of the odds they faced. They each experienced their own ineffectiveness. Lewis even accepted suffering through violence and the possibility of his own murder. His stakes were the highest of the three and higher than most of us have ever had to contemplate.

Perhaps the difference between personal, professional and civic grit is impact. We understand the intended impact through the resolute strength, the nature of the confrontation and the persistence through failure.

The CEO sought a professional win for herself and for her team. Semmelweis sought to protect new mothers who risked infection while staying in the hospital. He also would have proven something about the power of science to affect mortality rates, specifically, and to improve the quality of life generally.

John Lewis: A Paragon of Civic Grit

John Lewis confronted a sickness that no science could prove, the dissonance between the principles we revere and our practices. He worked to enroll and guide the like-minded in hard work. They had to confront the opposition and make it possible for them to see failure where they had claimed to see no problem at all. Lewis persisted in believing we all wanted to do better by one another despite all evidence against it. He confronted who we were and challenged our behavior with the ideas of who we said we wanted to be.

John Lewis created a category of work for everyone if we committed ourselves to making the principles of the American founding true. He created an opportunity for each of us to redeem the past, joining him as agents for hope and equality.

He could see clearly what was possible if we realized the promise of being one American people. He will not stop until we all refuse to accept anything less. That takes grit.