Persistence is a virtue across almost all walks of life. For better or worse, generations of cultural thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to Malcom Gladwell have taught us that if we just keep at it, anything is possible. In fact, remaining resolute in your conviction––no matter what the universe throws at you––is frequently cited as a key factor in lasting success … regardless of whether that success is personal or professional.
But what exactly does successful persistence look like in business? How should perseverance be applied to large-scale initiatives like product launches, HR onboarding techniques or workflow integrations?
The short answer: It all comes from the top.
Here are five reasons why persistent business leaders lead best, along with some insight into how these leaders guide their teams toward extraordinary macro goals by staying present and purposeful at the micro level.
1. They are transparent about what it means to persist.
Business leaders tend to interpret persistence as a combination of diligence, concentration and agility––all executed with a clear focus and a dogged sense of determination. Still, persistence can have a variety of meanings depending on the industry, product, team structure or business model in question. And part of being a persistent leader is learning how to define persistence for yourself and your organization.
As such, a perseverant manager assigns different levels of priority to team attributes such as steadfastness, adaptability or reactivity. In HR, persistent managers might begin by asking themselves:
- Which traits best demonstrate persistence to me?
- Which traits will best exemplify persistence to my team?
- What kinds of persistence-related qualities will best align with our department goals? (Follow-ups: Should we place greater emphasis on pushing back against adversity? Adopting newer strategies as employment laws change? Maintaining an ideal talent retention rate?)
Once a definition of persistence is codified, the next step for a persistent leader is to settle on a teamwide classification for "success." This is because it's much easier to support a culture of persistence when you know exactly what it is you're persisting toward. In other words: A vague definition of success only inspires vague motivation in your teammates, causing company resilience to weaken and company objectives to remain woefully out of reach.
Questions to consider when defining success might include:
- What does a win look like for my team specifically?
- What are we hoping to achieve in both the short and long term?
- What would we consider a successful response to our challenges/failures?
Remember, answers are bound to differ from team to team and will change over time. Keep in mind that perseverant leaders understand these questions aren't a definitive road map so much as a foundational blueprint for how to move forward without losing momentum.
2. They are masters of the reframe.
Challenge and failure are inevitable. How leaders deal with them is not.
Part of a true persistence mindset is learning to approach complex or demoralizing situations in a way that won't detract from your ultimate goals. This outlook is similar to the mindfulness practice known as radical acceptance, the art of choosing to accept things as they are rather than trying to relitigate or rewrite what's already in the past.
Leaders who succeed at radical acceptance know how to reframe daily operations around a mantra of progress––not perfection. They work hard at re-evaluating challenges as well as (perceived) failures, and they actively transform temporary setbacks into genuine opportunities. For these leaders, a marketing misfire is really just a chance to regroup and recalibrate outreach strategy. And a dip in training completion rates is easily repurposed as an opportunity to improve the employee learning process.
In short: Persistent leaders believe failure is relative. They reframe conventional negatives as forward-thinking positives.
And this reframing isn't just about morale. Science suggests nontraditional thinking (that is, pushing past obstacles by reconsidering them from various angles) can help rewire the brain, leaving it open to new pathways of discovery. This indicates persistent "reframers" are more likely to uncover real, sustainable solutions to complications that arise during the normal course of business, just as they're more likely to keep team spirits productively high.
3. They know when to stand firm and when to be flexible.
An effective manager never turns persistence into "resistance." They possess a singularity of purpose, but they stay flexible when it comes to how they achieve said purpose. As a result, they're willing to experiment or switch gears if needed. And they're able to let go when necessary.
If company products aren't attracting enough business, persistent leaders will pull the plug and pivot to something new. Similarly, if current onboarding procedures aren't serving long-term company objectives, they'll help the team evolve through revised education policies or more innovative technologies.
On the other hand, leaders who demonstrate persistence also know when to call it a day. They respect there are times when inaction is actually the best course of action, and they're able to put down their pencils and redirect their energies accordingly. Why? Because they instinctively recognize the road to success isn't always a straight line. And they appreciate that interim adjustments––though they can cause temporary tectonic shifts––can sometimes prove invaluable in the long run. In this way, persistent leaders remain laser-focused on their objectives (i.e., consistent) but nimble and adaptable in their methods (i.e., not resistant).
4. They use perseverance to build trust and inspire.
As hinted above: persistence = consistence.
A consistent leader is someone who can be relied upon. And, since a leader's actions naturally shape and inform the attitudes of those around them, a consistent leader can inspire consistent (and, by extension, persistent) teams. So, when a manager demonstrates an unwavering devotion to company success, their teammates are more likely to follow suit.
Driven by their manager's ability to persevere when the going gets tough, teams typically feel empowered to develop a lasting culture of persistence for themselves. This might then inspire another department to adopt a similar culture, and on and on. This allows a sense of grit and perseverance to filter throughout the entire organization.
But that's not all. Persistence also equals humility. Leaders with their eyes on the proverbial prize will do whatever it takes to reach their goals––even if it means setting ego aside. These leaders are always receptive to new ideas and opinions, and they have no problem tapping into outside knowledge to familiarize themselves with alternate strategies.
They'll also seek out advice from colleagues and can always be depended upon to put the team ahead of themselves—a concept that echoes Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's collaborative dogma: the "learn-it-all" principle. This behavior engenders mutual respect and trust between the leader and their team members, which can, in turn, help boost motivation and jumpstart company growth.
5. They balance persistence with perspective.
Another hallmark of persistence? Patience. Because perseverant leaders always keep the endgame in sight, they're less inclined to make sacrifices in the name of momentary gain. They view company efforts as a long-haul journey, and they invest in delayed gratification over instant satisfaction. This means a persistent leader's decision-making can often be slow and methodical, allowing them to contemplate the many integral parts of an issue before calling the next business play.
Still, persistent leaders aren't above circling back once their play is made. Instead, they have a habit of placing plays under review for the sake of the broader ballgame. And if they find plays are no longer aligned with company objectives, they'll step back, take a breath and reconfigure––a tactic employed by successful leaders across all fields, as explained by legendary rugby captain Sam Warburton: "Anyone who's done well in business or in any career, it's never [a constant] upward curve. … It's just making sure that you stay focused, you stay true to yourself, you remember what the goal is and you keep going, and you get through those sticky patches. That's where you need that persistence."
For resilient leaders, the big picture always wins out. No one-time uptick in ROI or fleeting pat on the back will ever sway them from their stated purpose. They'll work tirelessly to keep things on track, despite any immediate temptations or ongoing distractions.
As you build your own persistent identity, consider these parting takeaways:
- Be open and honest about how persistence and success should manifest themselves ideally within your organization.
- Stay positive in your assessments, no matter how bumpy the road gets.
- Remain 100 percent committed to your big picture, but allow for some flexibility in the event of change.
- Cultivate strong, respectful relationships with your team members and ask for advice when you need it.
- Check your rearview mirror. Yesterday's initiative might not always make sense for your team today.
Finally and most importantly: Resist the urge to throw in the towel. If persistent leaders have one thing in common, it's that they show their faces and make the effort every single day. Without this kind of commitment, they can't hope to expect the same from their teammates.
Robert David has more than 40 years of academic, executive and nonprofit management experience and is currently the executive director of CSHRP, the Community for Strategic HR Partnership. He has previously served as managing director of corporate education for the University of California, Berkeley. He advises on leadership development best practices and implementing executive/director/manager learning programs.