A UPenn psychologist shares how anyone can emulate Joe Biden's most impressive leadership traits

  • Social psychologist Angela Duckworth says Joe Biden is an admirable leader who exemplifies grit.
  • But that's not actually his most powerful trait, Duckworth told Insider. 
  • Biden's biggest strength is his ability to turn that grittiness into compassion and empathy. 
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Having overcome a stutter, three deep family losses, and a range of personal obstacles to fill the highest office in the land, President Joe Biden exemplifies grit, according to social psychologist Angela Duckworth.

But that's not all that makes him an effective leader. 

"I do think that Biden has demonstrated grit," Duckworth told Insider, referring to one's ability to persevere through tough times with an end goal in mind. "But I think, at least as remarkably, he's demonstrated other aspects of character, like integrity and compassion." 

Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written the book on grit — literally. Her New York Times bestseller, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," dives into years of experience in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience to prove why grit is such a powerful tool for success. 

She stands by it — but also says that grit alone isn't enough to build an effective leader. According to Duckworth, the traits that will really serve Biden well as he steps in to lead the country, and that anyone can bring to their own leadership, are the compassion and vulnerability that Biden has brought to the public sphere. 

Read more: Meet Joe Biden, America's imperfect leader

Biden's life experiences have cultivated grit 

Grit usually emerges out of adversity, something Biden's past has had no shortage of. 

Born to a working-class family, Biden faced bullying throughout his teenage years for his speech impediment. Classmates would mock him with names like "Bu-bu-bu-Biden" or "Joe Impedimenta." And while he attended an elite private Catholic school, he also had to work on the grounds crew to afford tuition.

Undeterred, Biden went on to graduate from Syracuse Law and pursue politics. But even on Capitol Hill, Biden's background made him an outlier. 

"He didn't go to an Ivy League school," Evan Osnos, author of the biography "Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now," told Insider. "He didn't feel 100% at home among the Rhodes Scholars and others in Washington who were flexing their credentials."

Biden is also no stranger to grief, having faced the loss of two children and his first wife. He's opened up publicly about his personal grief and advised those going through similar loss to seek help. 

And yet, he's weathered nearly five decades in politics and even ran a successful race for the presidency of the United States. He's persevered through obstacle after obstacle, and, as Duckworth observes, he's built up a remarkable grittiness along the way. 

Grit is just one aspect of Biden's leadership 

However, just because someone faces difficult experiences — and hones their grittiness — doesn't mean they'll radiate empathy.  

"One could come out of adversity and become callous," Duckworth said. "But what's so admirable to me about Biden is that he exudes authentic compassion, which I think has been strengthened, as opposed to weakened, by his personal story."

These traits have become clear in the way Biden carries himself publicly, former colleagues told Insider.

Moe Vela, a former senior advisor for Biden during the Obama administration, describes Biden's management style as that of an "inclusive listener" who seeks out new opinions and perspectives. White House photographer David Lienemann remembers Biden for staying back after publicized events to talk to people who attended. 

And the character traits that Biden exhibits are going to be increasingly important in the years to come, Duckworth says. Traits like humility, curiosity, generosity, and curiosity are all important for successful leaders. 

Biden sets an example for any leader to follow 

Biden's trademark style of leadership — informed by trauma and hardship, yet authentic and compassionate — sets a model that any leader can learn from, regardless of background. 

In fact, Duckworth said, it's important not to romanticize trauma as a precursor for character development. While Biden's ability to overcome a burdened past is admirable, it's not the only thing that can build strong leadership. 

So even if you haven't encountered the same kinds of adversity that Biden has, it's still possible to take note of the way the president is known to carry himself; how he strikes compromise with others and forms connections with anyone in the room; and how readily he open ups about the challenges he's encountered in life.

It's possible to show empathy, in other words, even when you haven't been in the same situation. 

"I think what Biden will be doing is modeling the sort of character for all of us to imitate," Duckworth said. "And I think it will actually have an influence on how many of us interact with each other and make choices." 

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