The other night President Obama heralded persistence as one of his saving virtues. There is a subtle truth in the notion that leadership requires persistence, and that we have not made persistence a critical trait that we reward. Our culture is one where immediate gratification and short-term payoffs have become the modus operandi. For the last twenty years, we have been rewarding people for short-term accomplishments, and they’ve come to expect immediate rewards. This short-term mentality is inconsistent with the very notion of persistence. Persistence is based on three assumptions:
1) That the road ahead is a long one
Successful leaders understand that the translation of vision into reality requires patience, as well as a view of the road, not as a short cut, but as a journey. If one examines the behavior of some of our greatest leaders (e.g., Lincoln, Roosevelt), one is struck that early in their administration they understood that the challenges that lay ahead require a long journey. While they engaged in some short-term immediate fixes, they understood the fixes were buying them time and only part of a longer journey. Clearly, this long-term vocabulary is one that President Obama has chosen to adopt.
2) That the best way to travel that road is one step at a time
Persistence also implies the capacity to move at a consistent but slow enough pace that allows you to make adjustments as you’re traveling down the road. By going one step at time, you may be committing yourself to the journey, but you understand that with each step you may have to make adjustments. Again, the President and his administration have made it clear that adjustments have to be made as they move down the road. Persistence implies the realization that while you may have a plan, that you also have to make adjustments as you face uncertainties and obstacles.
3) That what is critical is pacing.
Like the long-distance runner or the 15-round boxer, good leaders understand they have to pace themselves. To do everything immediately and upfront will exhaust if not bankrupt their initiatives. Leaders who pace their initiatives and their efforts over a period of time can ensure that new ideas and new initiatives are constantly being mobilized. They are also very concerned with their own capacity of sustaining momentum, making sure that they push and sustain their initiative in such a way that at no one position they get stuck or peter out.
When Obama talks about persistence as a leadership virtue, he is striking a core notion that is often ignored. Our culture has downplayed the role of persistence. There is an irony to this. If there is one trait that is endemic to upper mobility in America, it’s persistence. The ability of individuals to put a goal in front of them and pursue that goal to its fruition. I’m reminded of the actor who is congratulated on his “overnight” visibility. How easily we forget the 15 years that was spent off-off Broadway, in Brooklyn basement theaters, and plugging away at a temp jobs. Persistence is an unheralded virtue, but is at the heart of leadership, and at the heart of success.