Last year I decided to run a half marathon. That’s 21.1 km – the longest distance I had ever run in my life. But I wanted to challenge myself to try, and maybe even taste the possibility of one day running a full marathon – one of those bucket list type of ideas. You might imagine that it required a lot of courage on my part to take on this challenge, and you would be correct, but not perhaps in the way you might think.
In difficult situations, courage may be required to take the initial step of action – to begin to do the right thing, or a good thing, even in the midst of fear, the unknown, or opposition. But courage is also a virtue of endurance – the capacity to keep doing the good or right thing over a prolonged period of time, despite boredom, fatigue, or hardship. Some people call this grittiness. Others might refer to it as determination, persistence, or steadfastness. But this aspect of courage can also simply be called perseverance. Truth be told, for me personally it did not require a lot of courage just to sign up for a half marathon. But it did require a lot of courage, in the form of perseverance, to train to run 21.1 km with a goal of finishing in less than 2 hours.
When it comes to leadership, perseverance is also one of the most important virtues required and it can be applied to many leadership situations. But there are three areas in which every leader requires perseverance: vision, tasks, and relationships.
Perseverance in Vision
One of the roles of a leader is to cast a vision of a preferred future, to get people on-board, and to do what’s necessary to achieve it. At first a new vision can be very exciting, energizing and uplifting. In one way or another we are all attracted to ‘something new’. People rally around and things start moving. But often, inevitably, challenges arise. Things don’t go as smoothly as we had anticipated and maybe some of those following us start to become critical. As time progresses things can get heavy, and we may be tempted to abandon the vision.
It’s precisely at these moments when courage, in particular perseverance, is necessary. It doesn’t mean that leaders aren’t free to make adjustments or course corrections. But a virtuous leader needs to dig deep and remember the purpose and motivation behind why they set out with the vision in the first place. A strong “why” can endure any “what”.
Perseverance in Tasks
All leaders have things they will need to do – important tasks that need to be completed. Some of them will be easy and quick. Some of them can be delegated to others who have specific competencies. But there will be other tasks that need to be handled directly and personally by the leader, and at times these will take much longer and will be more difficult than anticipated.
It could be easy to let things slip, to give up and to not press on. But this would be leadership suicide. Seeing tasks through to the end is one of the ways leaders build trust with their collaborators. One of the surest ways to lose trust is to make promises and not see them through. Therefore, it is critical that virtuous leaders exercise perseverance in these tasks for the sake of their mission and their credibility as a leader.
Perseverance in Relationships
I once asked a leader of a complex organization what was the most challenging aspect in his leadership. He answered, “That’s easy – it’s also the most rewarding aspect: the people.” In the pursuit of a vision, relationships between people at times get strained. We are all unique and while those differences are enriching, they can also become frustrating.
Leaders especially are not immune to this experience. When things get tough with people, one could be tempted to ignore either the issue or the individual(s), in the hopes that things will get better on their own. Or one might feel tempted to leave that relationship behind and press on toward the accomplishment of the vision. But at the heart of great leadership lies a dedication to people.
Ultimately, perseverance in relationships means being willing to endure awkwardness or tension, while initiating steps toward deeper understanding and friendship. It’s not always possible to reconcile differences, but virtuous leaders make the effort and don’t give up easily.
The Key to Perseverance: Perspective
We are often tempted to give up early when we lose our perspective on a situation. In vision, we forget why we are doing what we are doing. In tasks, we lose sight of how broken promises undermine the integrity of our leadership. In relationships, we forget that leadership isn’t just about accomplishing a vision; it’s a journey with people.
When leaders find themselves struggling to persevere, we need to step back, find a quiet place, and take some time to reflect and remember – to gain perspective. We need to remember why our vision is important. We need to recall how completing tasks builds confidence in our leadership. We need to reflect on the incredible rewards of companionship in a common mission.
On May 23, 2015 I ran 21.1 km in 1 hour 58 minutes, bettering my goal by two minutes. It required many moments of perseverance throughout the six months of training prior to the race, and it especially demanded perseverance during the last 3 kilometres of the race itself. But for me, it was a moment of great joy and accomplishment when I crossed the finish line.
When leaders persevere in vision, tasks, and relationships they can find great joy in achieving their goals. In which area of your leadership do you need perseverance?