Leadership Caffeine™: Gut Check on Your Intestinal Fortitude

Leadership CaffeineSomeone asked me the other day, whether there was one quality above all others that stuck out as essential for success as a leader?

Without hesitating, I responded, “intestinal fortitude.”

And while the question is not dissimilar to one of those impossible to answer but fun to speculate about debates that run endlessly on sports talk shows (e.g. Who was better, Aaron or Ruth?), I’m taking sides on this one.

Aside from the issues that we all face as humans, including health challenges, personal loss and heartache, leading others rates a difficulty factor on par with brain surgery, rocket science and throwing a no-hitter in baseball. And while I suspect that the brain surgeons, rocket scientists and professional pitchers are either cancelling their RSS feeds or burning up the keyboards writing rebuttals that start out, “Dear Idiot,” consider the case for the extreme difficulty of leading and the need for intestinal fortitude:

  • Leading would be easy if it weren’t for the people. We are complex, emotional creatures, all driven by our often unspoken intentions, dreams or battles. We’re darned complex to guide, motivate, inspire and coach, and we don’t easily place our trust in those that we reference as leaders.
  • For those keeping score, the days of frustration always outnumber the days of satisfaction.
  • Accolades and hearty slaps on the back are uncommon responses to your best leadership efforts.  In reality, the best moments of a leader are often celebrated in silence.
  • Ambiguity, uncertainty and change are on the menu daily.  As a leader, you’ll leave your comfort zone far behind, and you quickly discover that someone moves your cheese almost every day.
  • On the worst days, you’ll stare in the mirror in the morning and wonder whether you’ve finally reached your level of incompetence.

Back to intestinal fortitude (IF)IF is what kicks you out of bed everyday, knocks down your demons of self doubt, scoffs at ambiguity and gives you the confidence to fight the good fight, serving, developing and guiding others. IF helps you deal with ethical dilemmas, tough decisions and the sticky spots along the way.  And finally, IF is what you draw upon to gain the courage and energy to persevere on what may often seem like a thankless task. It reminds you that this job has little to do with you and everything to do with the people around you.

6 Gut Check Questions to Test Your Leadership Intestinal Fortitude:

1. How much personal satisfaction do you gain from serving others? If your honest answer is, “not very much,” then you need to reset on your leadership ambitions.

2. Are you comfortable almost never being the center of attention? If you crave the limelight, this job’s not for you.

3. Do you prefer to drive home every night feeling like you accomplished something? Hey, this isn’t like building a house or cutting the lawn.  You may not see your accomplishments for years in some cases.

4. Want to wake up and know where your day will take you? Once again, if the answer is “yes,” you’ve got problems as a leader.

5. Do you prefer making decisions that make everyone happy? If yes, it’s likely that this job is not for you.  A leader’s skills are forged in the fires of tough decisions, not popular decisions.

6. Do you have the moral courage to stand tough and take the heat for your team during times of adversity?  Leaders are made during tough times and by taking the unpopular path on    difficult issues.  If you don’t like the idea of being a human shield, it’s time to dust off those individual contributor skills.

The Bottom Line for Now:

Don’t get me wrong.  The personal rewards from leading far outweigh the burdens.  Nonetheless, without Intestinal Fortitude, you won’t last long enough to realize what a remarkable experience it is to serve and guide others.

Did you know that Art serves up a Leadership Tip of the Day at Building Better Leaders?  It’s a small cup of daily leadership caffeine.  Visit the Building Better Leaders blog and subscribe.

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:51+00:00 July 6th, 2010|Career, Decision-Making, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|19 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Sharon Eden July 6, 2010 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Respect your straight-talking-telling-it-how-it-is, Art. And the passion for what you do which I’m picking up between the lines… or imagining 🙂 as a mirror of my own passion for leadership. Naaa! I think it’s both of us.

    Superb post… Thank you!

  2. Anne Perschel July 6, 2010 at 11:25 am - Reply

    Art – Your post is a reminder that we ask way too much of leaders and offer way too much criticism in return. We need to offer praise as well and less of our outrageous expectations that our leaders will find us an easy way out.

    My second comment is on both the lighter and more serious side. As a force for the advancement of women leaders, I suggest that if intestinal fortitude is one of the most important leadership characteristics, we ought to have more women leaders. Members of the fairer sex often endure months of morning sickness and so with a sense of wonder and fortitude on behalf of the vision they are brining forward.

    • Art Petty July 6, 2010 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Sharon and Anne, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Sharon, I’m definitely passionate about this topic! Glad to know another member of the club. There’s no doubt in my mind that we should have more women leaders. Best to both of you! -Art

  3. Andrew Meyer July 6, 2010 at 11:37 am - Reply

    There is another element. As a leader, Is it your money that you are risking or is it other people’s money? It requires little courage to risk other peoples money, but if its your money, your relationships, your reputation, then intestinal fortitude and the decisions around it have real meaning.

    If the decisions you make involve your house, the ability to pay your mortgage, send your kids to school or put food on the table that night, then intestinal fortitude is deeply involved. If you’re earning a nice salary regardless of the outcome, you’re fooling yourself if you say intestinal fortitude is involved.

    WS bankers, BP executives and project managers, AIG executives, Worldcom executives and a host of other “leaders” claimed to make decisions requiring great intellect and intestinal fortitude. Those decisions required nothing of the sort. When mistakes were made, people didn’t pay back last years salaries or bonuses or declare bankruptcy or give up their houses. Instead, they made a cool calculation. If this goes forward and works, I make a lot of money. If it fails, I might have to find another job.

    There’s no burden to making bad decisions, so there’s no requirement of intestinal fortitude. Cold financial calculus, yes. Is that leadership? Is that intestinal fortitude? In today’s business world, the answer is yes.

    • Art Petty July 6, 2010 at 11:41 am - Reply

      Good message on ethics and values. As usual Andy, we’re kindred spirits on separate planes. Don’t bastardize my use of “IF” please to suit your own soapbox issue. -Art

  4. Three Star Leadership Blog July 7, 2010 at 10:56 am - Reply

    7/7/10: Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs…

    Every week I select five excellent posts from this week’s independent business blogs. This week, I’m pointing you to posts on civility in the work place, intestinal fortitude, getting your new idea accepted, experimenting at work, and the leadership …

  5. Wally Bock July 7, 2010 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


    Wally Bock

    • Art Petty July 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Wally, thanks so much for including this post as one of your five-best this week! It’s in some great company! -Art

  6. SWrightBoucher July 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    I really appreciate this post. My favorite part:

    “IF is what kicks you out of bed everyday, knocks down your demons of self doubt, scoffs at ambiguity and gives you the confidence to fight the good fight, serving, developing and guiding others.”

    Thanks for putting a name to it!

    • Art Petty July 8, 2010 at 6:01 am - Reply

      Thanks, Susan!

  7. Mike A. July 8, 2010 at 7:40 am - Reply

    Loved your article on leadership and the IF thinking. I am in he 32nd year of leading my own self started successful business. My biggest self critisism is my lack of consistent praise provided to my Co-workers for the job they are performing for us (directly form me). Perhaps it is the strong German heritage in me that is always looking for better results or close to perfection and if it isn’t the gold medal I feel we could have done better? I deeply care about my Team (and I believe that they realize that) however when it comes to walking around and handing out praise I grade myself with an F. Do you have any suggestions on how I can go about turning this grade around without scaring them off or appearing fake? Many of the approx. 130 Team memebers have worked with me for 20+ years and have become accustomed to my management style.
    Mike A.

    • Art Petty July 8, 2010 at 8:07 am - Reply

      Mike, congratulations on sustaining a successful business for over three decades! What a tremendous accomplishment.

      I love your question and kudos for recognizing an area that you believe merits improvement. Those of us with experience often stay stuck in our long-carved ruts. I’ll hesitate on being too prescriptive without knowing more, but here are some thoughts. I’m hoping other readers will add in as well.

      Moving from a tough but fair taskmaster that is short on praise and long on constructive criticism can be done in an evolutionary fashion so as not to shock the system and staff. They might all think something is wrong if you suddenly start spouting praise everywhere. : ) Take some time to plan out how you will deliver praise. Positive feedback, like the constructive type that it sounds like you’ve mastered, has the same characteristics: it should be specific, behavioral, observable and in this case, it should reinforce good behaviors that support the business. Think about establishing a daily goal of delivering 2 or 3 positive messages everyday, and then consciously seek out people and behaviors that fit the above criteria. If someone does a great job on a project…serves a customer, fixes a problem, seize the opportunity to say something as close as possible to the good event. Make certain that your comment is specific enough to mean something and by all means, don’t overdramatize the positive event. Again, we don’t want to shock the system.

      As time progresses and you become comfortable dispensing meaningful positive praise, you can create additional opportunities to thank people through hand-written notes, small, unpublicized gifts, if appropriate, an unexpected bonus. Beware jumping to quickly towards public approaches that can backfire…”Employee of the Month” type awards. While intentions may be good, these types of programs in my experience fail to do much of anything for the environment.

      And so were not over-thinking this issue, practice the two most powerful words in the world: Thank you. Those that have stuck with you over 20 years aren’t expecting hugs, but a sincere thanks in the right moment will be priceless.

      Readers, what say you? Let’s help Mike become a positive feedback expert!

      Good luck, Mike! Keep us posted. -Art

  8. Bonnie J. July 8, 2010 at 10:14 am - Reply

    A couple of things struck me. One, the IF was a powerful writing.
    I appreciated reading that.

    The Other is about Mike the boss. I like the emotional intelligence side of looking at businesses. I work in a college atmosphere and I see bosses like Mike all the time.

    The workers under Mike adjust there life around the boss to make things work in the environment that they are in. Unfortunately it can make the people under Mike respond to people, clients, and other workers the way that Mike responds to those around him. It could be good, or it could make people not want to walk in the office.

    What I do for my office environment I have the students take a Myers Briggs test.
    I use that as a measuring devise to show the students how to interact with each other. Some people wear their emotions on their sleeves. Others are very direct like it sounds like Mike is.
    So I show the students that when your working with people you are not working with the intellectual side of them but an emotional side.
    The direct person can say; could you please file this and the emotional side would say sure no problem. Instead of saying file this!
    The emotional side realizes that they cannot take things personally because they know that this person is a getter done type, and they do not mean anything directly at them.
    Since I have had the students take these test their has been a great deal of understanding of each other and I have learned more about my employee’s in the office, it was educational and fun. It gave the office something to talk about.

    For Mike maybe he needs to watch his people and observe their mannerisms, and realize emotional intelligence, plays a major role in running a company.

    • Art Petty July 8, 2010 at 10:47 am - Reply

      Bonnie, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad that you enjoyed the piece in IF! Thanks as well for your thoughts on EI and Mike. I suspect that he will appreciate your ideas here. -Art

  9. SWrightBoucher July 8, 2010 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    This is a comment for Mike.

    I agree – you deserve kudos for seeking ways to improve your management style. It would be so easy for you to be satisfied that your past behaviours got you where you are and should be sufficient to keep things moving forward…

    One of the most flattering things we can do with people is ask them for their opinion. What if, instead of tossing compliments around, you approached a worker and said “I really admire your problem solving skills. Can I tell you about something that is on my mind to get your perspective?” Perhaps you do this already. If not, this could be a solid way to build esteem within your team and motivate them toward better performance.

  10. […] Gut Check on Your Intestinal Fortitude by Art Petty […]

  11. Fred B July 20, 2010 at 4:05 am - Reply

    Good arfticle. I am considering asking these questions at my next staff meeting? The results will be interesting.

  12. Jussi August 5, 2010 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Good one, Art!

    As a student and teacher of virtue (including fortitude), I’d be interested in knowing whether the “intestinal” part was only marketing 😉 or if you really separate “fortitude” and “intestinal fortitude”. And if you separate them, how and why.

    Hope that’s not too much to ask for. I’m just curious how the word “fortitude” is understood across the globe.

    Anyways, thanks for this good take on courage and staying the course!

    • Art Petty August 5, 2010 at 8:05 am - Reply

      Jussi, thank you for reading and commenting. I’m afraid that the only claim that I can make for the use of “intestinal,” is that I’ve heard this phrase “He showed real intestinal fortitude” all of my life. It is very likely a cultural phrase or slang that does not translate well. Thanks as well for your encouragement and for the reminder that our language should always take into account a global audience. Best, -Art

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