“Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal while others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before.”
“Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.”
-Dr. Samuel Johnson
Sometimes, leaders appropriately “call it a day” in a particular endeavor. If the timing proves wrong for a venture or the return on the investment does not merit the expenditure of additional effort or resources, leaders correctly bring a struggle to a halt. Too often, however, they simply fail to triumph and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” by not aggressively seeing through a matter to its ultimate and proper conclusion. Knowing when not to give up at a time when resistance seems overwhelming is more of an art than a science. A combination of perspective, strong and timely support from trusted advisors, and personal courage appears to mark leaders who consistently push through adversity. Even currently successful leaders will benefit by cultivating higher capacities for those variables. In that way, they remain prepared to thrive in the periods of greater adversity that accompany additional responsibility.
Accurately assessing the progress of an effort can prove challenging, especially in the midst of resistance. Many leaders prematurely end a worthwhile effort simply because they lack a proper perspective. Even seasoned leaders can fail to remember that anything involving change will meet resistance. Institutional inertia and individual opposition meet virtually every initiative proactive leaders undertake. In these instances, leaders can gain perspective by undertaking a thorough review of significant events in history. In our quick-return, Web-based world of snippets and abridged accounts of past achievements, we too often lose sight that those historical successes most often resulted from significant investments in time and energy, as well as sacrifices. A study of past victories can help leaders increase their perspective on the challenges that inevitably await them.
Leaders also can gain perspective on resistance by considering the laws of nature. Generally, when compared with smaller objects, larger ones drag and generate more friction when they move and require greater amounts of energy to propel them. Resistance also increases when the larger objects start to gain speed. This effect in nature is analogous to many of the tasks and initiatives that leaders undertake. Reminding themselves that nothing large or significant moves without generating a commensurate amount of friction can provide leaders with perspective. Leaders also can turn friction and resistance into a positive by exploring ways to make their initiative more streamlined or aerodynamic.
With the right perspective, leaders realize that not all resistance is negative in origin. Some pushback, especially from those who possess high levels of character and competence, can have a “wind tunnel” effect by highlighting aspects of the initiative that can be improved. Accepting and acting upon such feedback can improve the effort and make the implementation process more efficient. For example, a stakeholder posing the question “Do we really need voice-activated power locks on the new cruisers?” may be pointing out a way to save money during a major procurement.
Although the often used maxim that “it is lonely at the top” contains a kernel of truth, no leader ever generates success in a vacuum. Mentors, coaches, and advisors accompany the path to worthwhile accomplishments. Leaders can prepare for times of adversity in advance by cultivating a broad base of advisors who can fan the flames of perseverance by offering support at the right moments. Building these relationships requires time and trust. Leaders should realize that no one individual—regardless of how well-trusted—can have the right answers for every circumstance. Leaders also face the possibility of receiving conflicting advice about continuing an endeavor in the face of opposition. Nonetheless, support from others genuinely concerned and committed to bringing an important initiative to fruition can provide leaders with well-timed inspiration. Here, wise leaders will think in 360-degree terms and incorporate peers and subordinates into their cadre of trusted advisors.
Perhaps the most difficult variable to obtain and apply in support of perseverance is courage. The application of authentic leadership in difficult situations always has required a generous measure of courage. Impactful leadership is not for the faint of heart. Courage is not always innate and, like most character qualities, can be intentionally developed. However, like wisdom, courage requires exercise and experience to grow. Willingly taking on a variety of small challenges throughout their careers can help leaders build the capacity to take the appropriate risks necessary to persevere. Leaders can improve their courage quotient by identifying and thoroughly analyzing potential challenges facing an effort prior to initiation and at milestones along the way. Identifying future difficulties can lessen the shock of surprise that can drain leaders’ strength to continue. Most important, making a predetermination to carry on in spite of pending adversity can act as a fortitudinous “booster shot” and help to inoculate a leader against the temptation to quit a matter too soon.
No secret recipe or formula exists that consistently will provide a leader with the precise knowledge of when to abort or continue an undertaking in the face of significant resistance and challenges. However, increasing their capacity for perseverance can enhance leaders’ ability to make proper decisions at critical junctures. Replete in history and reflected in the quotes preceding this article, the decision to persevere ultimately has made the difference between success and failure in many monumental efforts.
Special Agent Jeffrey C. Lindsey, chief of the N-DEx Program Office of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Division, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.