Secrets of Persistence

When things get rough, are you tempted to throw in the towel?

Not Bob Salem. When this guy sets a goal, it’s a done deal.

Earlier this year, 53-year-old Bob Salem of Colorado Springs became the fourth person in history to push a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak with his nose.

Fighting fatigue and dehydration, it took Salem seven days of crawling on his hands and knees to reach the 14,115-foot summit. Salem travelled mostly at night to escape the heat and avoid distractions from tourists. Despite pausing and posing for hundreds of well-wishers, Salem shattered the old record of eight days.

In case you’re interested in pushing the envelope — sorry, the peanut — Salem recommends bringing extra goobers. The tenacious champ lost two dozen peanuts that fell into cracks along the trail. Plus, he admits to eating a few as snacks.

A powerful force for change.

Albert Einstein said, “Persistence is the most powerful force on earth, it can move mountains.” (Or in Bob Salem’s case, move you up a mountain.)

As leaders, we’re all faced with mountains — mountains of work, mountains of challenges, mountains of uncertainty. As a coach, I’ve seen firsthand that achieving significant goals is seldom easy; it’s the result of persistent leadership that sees roadblocks, risks, even failures as only temporary obstacles.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many different leadership styles, but the single driving trait common to all successful leaders is persistence. This essential leadership trait is the ability to confront challenges and retain your perspective (and optimism) even when problems become stressful, unrelenting, or complicated.

Exactly what is persistence?

The dictionary defines it as “the quality that allows someone to continue doing something even though it is difficult or opposed by other people.” Another definition may hit closer to home, “continuing to do something despite difficulties, especially when other people are against you and think you’re being annoying or unreasonable.”

Stand strong.

All truly great leaders stick to their positions — even when facing a hailstorm of criticism. Obviously, wise leaders listen to the opinions of peers and stakeholders. They consider multiple points of view, review facts and weigh all the data. But in the final analysis, they persistently adhere to their principles by making tough choices, then holding fast to what they believe will most benefit the organization or nation.

For example, we all know the famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” They were spoken by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969.

But they might never have been uttered if it weren’t for the power of persistence. Today, most folks are supportive of our nation’s policy of space exploration; we see its strategic importance. However, when President John F. Kennedy first proposed that we go to the moon, he met a wave of criticism and ridicule. It was deemed too expensive, too risky, and above all, too difficult. None of the complaints deterred JFK.

In September 1962, Kennedy gave his famous speech establishing the national dedication to go to the moon. He declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Isn’t that the very essence of persistence?

People like Madame Curie and George Washington Carver and Samuel Morse changed our lives for the better by sticking to “hard” projects that were so difficult they took decades of persistence to accomplish.

Our working definition of persistence is “continuing to do something even when other people are against you.” In his famous man-on-the-moon speech, President Kennedy addressed his critics by referencing other bold goals that had required enormous persistence: “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”

Later in the same speech, Kennedy brought up innovations like penicillin, television and nuclear power — seminal achievements that also took perseverance and persistence.

Kennedy’s vision and the decades of scientific innovation that followed, demonstrated the necessity of persistence when striving to reach groundbreaking or seemingly impossible goals. Whether you’re building a sales team or a lunar lander, persistence is the ability to keep moving forward, even when a solution is not obvious, easy, or quick.

Always get back up.

Boxing superstar Muhammad Ali said, “You don’t lose if you get knocked down; you lose if you stay down.” Now, if I said that, you could take it or leave it. But Ali backed it up with 56 wins in an amazing career. He was the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times. Not to mention his Olympic gold medal. By the time he retired at age 39, Ali had become the predominate sports figure of the 20th century.

But even Ali didn’t have a perfect record. He lost five professional fights. What would have happened if he’d given up and walked away from the sport after losing? What if he’d quit instead of persisting? The lesson is obvious. Even after a failure — or five or fifty — a persistent leader keeps working diligently and inspiring others.

Perry Holley from the John Maxwell Group agrees. He says that without the leadership quality of persistence, you can never be the change agent and motivator you need to be to take yourself and others to the next level.

In his blog post, Holley lists four points he reminds himself of during difficult and trying times. Here are his “reminders” of how to keep things in perspective…

  1. There is no growth inside your comfort zone. If you are clinging to comfort, you are most likely not growing or moving toward your goals.
  2. Everything worth doing is uphill. Zig Ziglar said, “There is no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs.”
  3. If you are coasting, you are going downhill.  
  4. Behind mountains are more mountains. There is no path to success that does not include obstacles. Once you are past one, the next will appear.

The universality of problems should not surprise any leader. Battles and frustrations are part of any organization — regardless of size. We must confront these challenges, assess their severity, and come up with effective solutions to keep the group on track.

Regarding solutions, remember this: If one solution doesn’t work, try another. Then another. That’s persistence. Thomas Edison tried over 1,000 “solutions” before creating a long-lasting filament for the electric light. As team leader at Menlo Park laboratory, Edison led by his own example. When asked about his perseverance, he said, “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Edison’s personal work ethic points to another leadership principle. The leader of any company, organization, or movement establishes the “tone” for the group. Leaders establish this tone more through actions than words, by making the kind of decisions and choices that team members come to expect and emulate.

A persistent leader establishes a “can do” attitude that refuses to accept that any goal lies beyond the group’s ability. It boils down to this: Persistent leadership inspires persistent team members. Once established, this tone becomes the driving principle for the group and its individual achievers. When everyone is seeking a solution — regardless of how difficult or frustrating — success and innovation are always possible.

Nature or nurture?

We all love the stories: The grandmother who gets her Master’s degree at age 82. The runner who finally completes a marathon on his tenth attempt. The local chef who wins a major award after decades of trial and error.

In every era, in every culture, in every endeavor, there’s one consistent trait among successful groups or individuals — the unflinching ability to persevere. This much-admired quality is the unexplainable desire to take one more step forward when everybody else on the same journey has given up and sat down.

All of which begs the question: Is persistence something we’re born with or something we can develop? We all know folks who give up far too easily. If things don’t go exactly as planned, they quit the project, drop the class, walk off their job, whatever. And yet we know others who hang onto a mission like a bulldog to the bitter end.

The good news is that although persistence doesn’t always come naturally, most of us can acquire it, develop it, and excel at it. In her book, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success, Angela Duckworth tells us how: “There are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems; it all takes time ― longer than people imagine … Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it … Not just falling in love ― staying in love.”

As a married man (30 years and counting), I especially like the allusion to “staying in love.” As somebody once said, “Getting married is easy; staying married is hard.” Even the best relationships take commitment and work and a huge dose of persistence.

Why do we vacillate between persisting and quitting? As leaders, we’re clever enough to rationalize any number of valid-sounding excuses to step down, give up, or kick the can down the road. We’ve all done it at some level or another.

I’ve pulled some Duckworth gems to help us stick it out when things get tough…

  • “Have a fierce resolve in everything you do.”
  • “Demonstrate determination, resiliency, and tenacity.”
  • “Do not let temporary setbacks become permanent excuses.”
  • “Use mistakes and problems as opportunities to get better — not reasons to quit.”

Great leaders guiding great groups have the right blend of passion and persistence. They’ve learned how to get up when they’re knocked down, how to shake off the pain of being rejected, and how to differentiate between low-level goals that are arbitrary and high-level goals that demand and deserve full-blown commitment.

As we learned following the advent of COVID, no organization is immune to setbacks, shutdowns, or supply chain issues. In my role as an executive coach, I hear from top leaders that business nowadays can feel like an unending string of complications and adversities. Some dubbed this increased level of challenge “the new normal.”

Fortunately, learning to be persistent can help offset the ambiguity and pitfalls of today’s business climate. To do that, our tenacity should be based on a firm grasp of the situation. After all, why persevere with a project if you haven’t done the research, understood the sector, and created a viable plan? Setting a clear goal — even if it’s daunting — is a key aspect of persevering. If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you get there? Even if your plans aren’t perfect or cut in stone, you should have something that you’re aiming for, and communicate it clearly to your team.

What makes a winner?

If you’ve played or coached sports, you’ve heard the old adage, “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.” Still true. Whether you’re pushing a peanut up a mountain, pushing a product into the marketplace, or pushing an athlete to do their best, the same principles apply: Remain committed to your goals, even under pressure!

Allow me to get really practical. The job of a leader in any setting — business, politics, athletics, education, nonprofits, whatever — is to get results. I believe the best results occur when leaders follow through regardless of circumstances.

What does this kind of perseverance look like day-to-day? Winning leaders…

  • Persistently avoid getting distracted, sidetracked, or drawn away from their goals
  • Persistently drive to improve themselves, their team members, and their organization
  • Persistently cast vision, set a course of action, and inspire people to get it done
  • Persistently instill confidence in their team by celebrating both small and big victories

When it comes to persistence, we all have room for improvement. And perhaps nothing reveals that better than our New Year’s Eve resolutions. Experts say that 80 percent of all resolutions fail by February. How many of us have made vows concerning diets, fitness, finances, or relationships? How many have resolved to learn a language, play an instrument, take up ballroom dancing, and so on?

Insert your own failed resolutions, and we’re all pretty much in the same boat. No wonder Angela Duckworth says, “Enthusiasm is common, endurance is rare.”

I’d love to help you set transformational goals worth sticking to.

Let’s connect informally to discuss your plans and see how we can approach them with enthusiasm and endurance. Contact me for a personal, no-obligation chat.