This is the third in a series of posts focused on the Psychology of a Great City. The purpose is to identify specific psychological traits present in the psyche of citizens of the country’s greatest cities and examine how our city measures up and where we have opportunity to grow.

In the 1969 classic western, True Grit, John Wayne reluctantly journeys through lawless territory to aid a stubborn young girl track down her father’s killer.

In an early scene of the film, Mattie, portrayed by Kim Darby, persuades Wayne’s character, Rooster, to help her. It isn’t the money Mattie offers that convinces Rooster to aid the young lady in her quest. It’s Mattie’s determination – her true grit – that convinces Rooster to go along.

In psychological terms, grit is a non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal coupled with a powerful drive to achieve that particular objective.

Another definition of grit is ‘a firmness of character or an indomitable spirit.’

It also describes a trait that is critical to the psychological makeup of a Great City.

In the modern business Bible Good to Great, Jim Collins writes, “It is very important to grasp that Level 5 leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”

How does Memphis measure up?
With all due respect to Tony Allen, grit has been in the City of Memphis’s DNA long before the Grizzlies defensive stalwart adopted Grit and Grind mantra.

Three years into operation, entrepreneur Fred Smith was struggling to keep Federal Express, his fledgling overnight package delivery service, afloat.

Fuel prices were skyrocketing, inflating operating costs and making it difficult to keep the company, which delivered packages via air transport, functioning.

To compound matters, Smith had been unsuccessful at attracting new funders beyond the $80 million in initial venture capital investment and his own resources were tapped out.

The only thing standing between Smith and the collapse of Federal Express was one last investor meeting. He boarded a plane headed to Virginia to meet with General Dynamics, the company’s last funding hope.

On Monday morning, Smith’s right hand man Roger Frock reluctantly checked the company’s account balance and was delighted to find its reserves replenished.

Relieved, Frock congratulated Smith on his successful meeting General Dynamics.

“It didn’t go well…” Smith replied, as documented in Changing How The World Does Business Frock’s historical biography of FedEx.

Management at General Dynamics had been unimpressed with Smith’s pitch on Federal Express and unwilling to take a risk on the still unproven concept of overnight package delivery.

On the verge of collapse and knowing that the company’s planes couldn’t delivery their freight without fuel– which he knew they wouldn’t be able to afford – Smith made a decision that would change the course of business history.

Instead of flying back to Memphis and admitting defeat, he hoped a plane to Los Vegas, where he turned the last $5,000 of company funds into $32,000, enough cash to keep the planes flying and the company afloat for at least a few more weeks.

Crazy? Perhaps. Did it work? Absolutely.

Today the world relies on FedEx’s overnight delivery capabilities to transport everything from last minute birthday gifts to vital organ transplant materials.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that when times are tight you should head to the blackjack tables. But I am saying that some of the world’s most successful corporations are on top because they have tenacious, grit-driven leadership.

And so are some of the world’s most successful cities.

Where do you think Memphis stands when it comes to True Grit?


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