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Is Obsession Necessary for Success?

Over the past few years, grit has become a hot topic in the study of achievement. Angela Duckworth is its best-known advocate, with a top-selling book and popular TED talk. She defines grit as the combination of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of a meaningful long-term goal. Researchers have documented grit’s impact in situations ranging from West Point cadets striving to survive boot camp to corporate workers attempting to meet their monthly sales targets. Importantly, grit’s supporters also claim that each of us, with education and coaching, can become grittier over time and realize the benefits of doing so.  

My last book, Extreme Teams, examined innovative practices in high performing teams in companies such as Pixar, Netflix and Airbnb. While the focus in that book was on team life, it sparked my interest in the psychology of leaders who create something extraordinary - something that disrupts the status-quo to improve the way we live and work. To that end, I assumed that grit would be a core trait of exceptional leaders. But grit did not fully capture what I was seeing in the leaders of the firms profiled in Extreme Teams. Leaders who are "filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose" are much more than gritty - they are obsessed with achieving an audacious goal.

To describe individuals such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk of Tesla as gritty is to miss the mark by at least half. They are more ambitious in their goals, more singular in their focus and more relentless in their drive. Jeff Bezos, over the past twenty-five years, has challenged conventional approaches to retailing with a never-ending emphasis on delighting customers. Amazon today is providing necessary products and food to millions of customers during a devastating pandemic. In so doing, he has created a company that is the most trusted name in e-commerce, one that has grown to become the second largest employer in the United States. Elon Musk is equally obsessive, creating transformative products such as electric cars that will help prevent what he believes will be an environmental catastrophe. Tesla is now worth more than the combined capitalization of Ford, GM and Chrysler – and is the most valuable car company in the world. Musk also achieved a breakthrough with SpaceX, becoming the first private company to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. The extraordinary success of Bezos and Musk suggests that while “good requires motivation, great requires obsession.” This is not to imply that obsession inevitably results in success – talent is equally important, but talent alone does not result in the creation of an Amazon or Tesla.

Obsession differs from grit in another way. Angela Duckworth, based on her research and experience, believes that grit has no significant disadvantages. She writes, “I don’t have any data that suggests there are drawbacks to being extremely gritty. Indeed, at the very top of the Grit Scale, I typically find individuals who are tremendously successful and also satisfied with their lives. . .”. More is almost always better when it comes to grit. But more is often less when it comes to obsession. The cost can be one’s physical and emotional health, personal and work relationships, and—in some situations—career advancement (as the obsessed can act in self-destructive ways that undermine their success in a company or team). Caring too much about one thing can mean that other things are neglected or sacrificed in the pursuit of a singular goal. Justine Musk commented on what it is like to live and work with an obsessive individual like Elon, observing that it can be exciting if you want what he wants but “what he has comes at a price, sometimes to Elon, sometimes to people close to him. But someone always pays.”

Obsession, then, is both necessary and potentially toxic – a blessing and a curse. My new book All-In: How Obsessive Leaders Achieve the Extraordinary examines the nature of obsessive leadership – in part, by exploring the thinking and practices of iconic leaders such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. My intent in writing the book is to help leaders and aspiring leaders maximize what obsession offers, in part, by understanding what it can also take away.

Robert Bruce Shaw

Robert Bruce Shaw assists business leaders in building organizations and teams capable of superior performance. His specialty is working closely with senior executives, as individuals and as groups, on organizational and leadership effectiveness.

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