Ali and Kemp: Two Stories of Grit

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about two former professional athletes: Mohammad Ali and Steve Kemp. That might seem like a strange combination, but Ali and Kemp have this in common: Grit.

You probably have an intuitive understanding of grit. You’ve seen it in someone (perhaps yourself). And you’ve seen it lacking in someone (perhaps yourself). Here’s how Mike Thompson and I defined it in Forging Grit, a fictional story that illustrates this critical quality for leadership success: Grit is a passion for getting something done and the fortitude to see it through even when obstacles seem overwhelming.

Grit marked Ali’s life, and it’s still marking Kemp’s. Kempali

You know of Mohammad Ali. He was The Champ. The Greatest. The iconic boxer with a flair for words died last week after suffering for years from Parkinson’s disease. As I read some of the many tributes about his life, I was regularly reminded of his grit, inside the ring and out. He had natural talent, but he knew what it meant to work hard and push through challenges to reach his lofty goals.

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it,” he once said. “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

And what about the grit of Steve Kemp?

Frankly, I had never given much thought to Kemp’s grit until last week when his daughter, who works for our publisher, sent Mike and me an email with her dad’s reaction to the book.

Kemp was the first overall pick in the 1976 draft, and he spent more than a decade as an outfielder in the big leagues. But a line drive during batting practice in 1983 shattered his eye socket and knocked his playing career off its Hall-of-Fame track. He played a few more years, but the injury severely damaged his depth perception and he was never the same on the field.

Kemp has been redefining himself ever since. He’s in his 60s now, and he would tell you that life without baseball hasn’t been easy for a guy whose world once revolved around the sport. He said in his email that he was inspired by the book because he knows he needs grit more than ever. “I really think God wanted me to read this book at this very moment,” he told his daughter.

Ali and Kemp both experienced success in athletics at least in part because they had grit to go along with their talent. Like many of us, they might have taken it for granted at times, especially at the height of their success. But their grit really defined them when they lost their ability to compete in the sweet spots of their respective skills. In other words, they needed grit most when they were most outside of their comfort zones.

As we grow like Jesus, we continually find ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes God takes us there and other times we go on our own and He uses the circumstances to prune us, shape us, and bring us to some better bloom. Some flowers wither at the first sign of a nearby weed. Others develop grit and bloom where they’re planted.

The formula for developing that grit includes finding a passion for something bigger than yourself. For followers of Christ, that something is Jesus. He gives us hope for something beyond this world. In fact, grit without Jesus is dangerous because it can lead to self-reliance rather than God-dependence. Ultimately, the passion that fuels our grit needs to flow from our love of God and faith in Jesus. With that, the things we accomplish – in business, in athletics and in life – can have eternal value.

ForgingGrit_FC-Web (1)Note: Forging Grit launched this week and is available online and at many bookstores.