By Cathy Converse
Several years ago I was tasked with launching an initiative at work. This initiative was completely new for our company, and because there was really nothing like it in our industry, I didn’t have anything to model it after. Launching this initiative required recruiting people for new positions, setting up new systems for operation, creating new products and services, defining and measuring success, and much more. It also required interaction with multiple stakeholders throughout the company. In short, it was complex, and more than a little bit daunting.
Fortunately, I had a stellar team that was willing and eager to jump in and get to work on making this dream a reality. But it wasn’t quick or easy. It required long hours, a lot of trial-and-error as we faced obstacles we hadn’t been able to anticipate when we began, and constant collaboration with our colleagues throughout the company. But we had a clear understanding of what we were aiming for and how it would propel the company forward if we were successful. And we were successful, because we never gave up. We were persistent to the very end.
Persistence as a part of Courageous Leadership
At Collaborative Momentum Consulting (CMC) we believe strongly that courageous leadership is an important solution to problems that hinder our growth as individuals, groups, organizations and communities today. Persistence is one of the characteristics that our research shows make up this type of leadership.
The Oxford dictionary defines persistence as “continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” Leaders from Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs have stressed the importance of persistence as a component of their leadership styles. The Navy Seals, for whom success is often a matter of life or death, include these words in their creed:
“If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.”
So how does persistence play out in a leadership role and why is it essential for the courageous leader? First, leaders must be persistent themselves so they can model that behavior to their teams. Second, they must inspire persistence in those they lead, so that all members of the team are pulling together until the goal is accomplished.
In my experiences as well as my review of the literature, there are five components that must be present in order to motivate others to keep going in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
- Knowing why. To pursue a goal relentlessly despite big hurdles, it is important for everyone on the team to understand what the goal is and why it is important. The purpose of the endeavor should be clear to all. Sometimes this requires digging deep and finding the ‘purpose behind the purpose’ until the ‘why’ is more powerful than the obstacles. This is the best way to keep the team motivated for the long haul. It can be very helpful to have the ‘why’ written down and even displayed where people will see it every day. In this way they can literally keep their eye on the prize.
- Setting realistic expectations. The more challenging the objective, the more important it is to set expectations accordingly. Persistent people and teams know that the path will be difficult—if it wasn’t, someone would have already found the solution. Understanding this, they commit to succeeding regardless of how many times they are knocked down.
- Accepting failure. If you are striving to accomplish big goals with equally big obstacles you will undoubtedly experience failures along the way. An environment where failure is not tolerated is one where nobody will think big and take the risks necessary to overcome big hurdles. It’s also one where morale is low and persistence evaporates. Acknowledge that there will be failures along the way and when they happen, focus on what can be learned from the failures so that you can move toward a solution. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
- Persistence doesn’t mean sticking to the same plan no matter what, it means sticking with the same goal no matter what. While a good Plan A is important, a good Plan B and Plan C are even more important. When pursuing a challenging goal, roadblocks are inevitable. A persistent leader will be flexible enough to realize when the plan is no longer working, and rather than abandon the goal, they will find alternate paths to follow toward the goal. And, recognizing that many heads are better than one, a strong leader will solicit and be open to the ideas of her team members in charting the path forward.
- In the most challenging assignments throughout my career, the thing that really kept me going was the fact that I was working together with an equally dedicated group of people who were working as hard as I was to find a way to reach the goal. The camaraderie that is created when a team is in the trenches together can be the difference between persevering to the finish line and running out of steam and giving up. Courageous leaders instill a strong sense of teamwork and confidence in their teams so that they can persist for the long haul. The bonds that are forged in these challenging times will extend beyond the assignment and pay dividends in future projects as well.
The next time you are tasked with an assignment that is complex and challenging, I encourage you to remember the importance of persistence and keep these five components in mind. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”
(Author not listed). (2007) 7 Sure-Fire Ways to Develop Persistence. https://www.lifeoptimizer.org/2007/11/19/7-sure-fire-ways-to-develop-persistence/. Retrieved May 2019.
Bryant, J.H. (2013) On Leadership: The Power of Persistence. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/on-leadership-the-power-o_b_3185664. Retrieved May 2019.
Deutschendorf, H. (2015) 7 habits of highly persistent people. https://www.fastcompany.com/3044531/7-habits-of-highly-persistent-people. Retrieved May 2019.
Gleeson, B. (2014) Why Persistence Is Far More Important Than Planning. https://www.inc.com/brent-gleeson/why-persistence-is-far-more-important-than-planning.html. Retrieved May 2019.
Hammond, K. (2017) Why is it important to be persistent as a leader? https://bizfluent.com/info-12017434-important-persistent-leader.html. Retrieved May 2019.
Sachs, J. The Power of Persistence. (2016) https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/05/24/the-power-of-persistence/#1e7acb722a70. Retrieved May 2019.
Warner, J. (2016) http://blog.readytomanage.com/is-perseverance-the-key-to-leadership-success/. Retrieved May 2019.
This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.