There is a fancy new buzz-word in the world of success and leadership: “grit”. Grit refers to that quality in successful leaders who demonstrate discipline and perseverance. It is now lauded as the distinguishing quality above intelligence and charisma. The question is – how do we as leaders acquire or rather cultivate grit? Recent studies show that those who have it also have the highest capacity for delayed gratification. In short, leaders who have grit have demonstrated an ability to check their appetites. This finding is not as new as we may think, however. It was espoused by Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher in the throes of the Roman civil wars.
Lucretius (99BC-55BC) is a poet whose life spanned the tumultuous years of the Roman Republic. Lucretius witnessed the demagoguery, the client-armies, the fallow fields, and the multiple revolts threatening an overthrow of the government. It is against this self-serving, self-promoting time in Roman history that Lucretius wrote his venerable and extraordinarily influential poetry. It is his profound observations on the human condition that spurred conversation not only by his contemporaries, but will provide fodder for us too as we consider the dangers of unchecked appetites. After all, there is no shortage of modern examples of leaders who destroyed their lives and careers because of an appetite that they could not control.
One of my favorite lines of Lucretian poetry comes from his famous invocation to Venus, the goddess of love and physical delight of gods and men. The invocation is as lyrically beautiful as the imagined Venus, whom Lucretius implores to distract Mars, the god of war, with her beauty. Set against the backdrop of the warring Republic, this impassioned plea makes for compelling reading and places a premium on the human senses. Lucretius writes,
In the meantime let the savage works of war
Rest easy, slumbering over land and sea.
For you alone can bless us mortal men
With quiet peace; Mars, potent of arms, holds sway
In battle, but surrenders at your bosom,
Vanquished by the eternal wound of love.
There, his chiseled neck thrown back, he gapes at you,
Goddess, and feeds his greedy eyes with love;
He reclines; his spirit lingers upon your lips.
Melting about him, goddess, as he rests
On your holy body, pour from your lips sweet nothings,
Seeking, renowned one, quiet peace for Rome.
For I cannot work with a clear mind while my country
Suffers, nor can the illustrious scion of
The Memmian house neglect the common good.
The eyes are rapacious. They do not merely see, but feed. However, the eyes, unlike the stomach, cannot be filled – they know no boundaries. Our eyes and ears stoke an appetite in our mind, and these appetites, unless checked, become greedy for more. Greed breeds more greed. Appetites war against the will.
To return to the all-important quality of grit… there are two ways to develop it:
1) Make a habit of refusing immediate urges. If you can say no to little things, you can begin to say no to big ones; and
2) Make the appetite smaller. To control your appetite, you must control your eyes and ears. As Cicero taught his son in his philosophical treatise, On Moral Duty: your eyes control your mind, your mind controls your actions, and your actions are your character.
To exhibit good character, grit, and responsible leadership qualities – we must guard our mind and appetites, which means we must guard our eyes and ears.
By Dr. Michael Sloan