Grit and Love of the Workplace

Tears streamed down my face as James Robertson humbly shared his story with the Detroit Free Press. James is 56 and earns $10.55/ hour in a machine shop. For 10 years, he has walked 21 miles a day to get to work, much of it at night. In Detroit – winter, spring, summer and fall. His daily commute takes 10 hours, allowing two hours of sleep a day.

Why does he do this? Grit comes to mind. CEO Kristen Hamilton succinctly defines grit as “an indomitable spirit”*. That’s James. But there’s something more that comes through in his words. Love. His story combines grit with a love of others. Inspired by his actions and words, here are a few musings about the workplace that come to mind.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The will to do it. You gotta pull something extra out.”

Low pay, lack of transportation, horrible weather, crime-ridden streets. Despite this host of obstacles, James didn’t quit. He dug deep within himself and found strength to continue. If all work teams had the will to “pull something extra out” every day and tackle challenges, what would be possible?

“I think its loyalty – loyalty to the job”

James loves his job, his bosses, his co-workers and they are his primary reason for staying. His co-workers describe him as dependable, friendly and committed to quality work.  His boss values him as a role model to others who have excuses about being late. James is a role model, despite not being in an official position of leadership. This says much about James but also the culture of his workplace. What inspires team members to such love and loyalty? How can workplace leaders recognize and celebrate role models at all levels to nurture such loyalties?

“There are so many other people that are in my situation.”

Thinking of others inspired James to reject self-pity and to give his all, every day. In our narcissistic selfie age, James shows how powerful it is to look away from the mirror and think of others. To co-workers, community and the world. What if every person in the workplace valued others and selflessly strove to contribute and make things better for all?

“No one can say I didn’t pay my dues in life. No one.”

James embraced this as his personal vision statement. Rejecting excuses and holding himself accountable for what he can do. Accepting the challenge before him, he used this message to stay on track. Imagine if every team member viscerally owned an organization’s vision… What would be possible?

“Detroit is the greatest city – the real city of angels.”

When his story became public, Detroiters reached out to offer help. James was shocked at the unexpected love shown to him by his community. In response, he expressed love for his city. A gritty Detroit that, despite a decades-long death spiral, is determined to revive itself and show love to a native son. Inspiration for all communities and workplaces that face daunting challenges. At your next team meeting, consider showing James’ video story and engage in discussion about your work teams. Don’t forget the box of tissues.

Detroit Free Press Video

*Fortune article on “grit”