I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just launched healthsystemCIO. My first son, Tyler, was only a year or two old. I had a ton on my plate and only a few hours to get some work done when I was rear-ended on my way to the office.
The first thing I thought was: well, there goes my three-hour work window, as I bowed my head in frustration. But the next thing I thought, after a few minutes of self-pity, surprised me: “Ok, what else you got?”
Here, I was talking to God or fate or whatever cosmic force you believe sends roadblocks our way at the most inopportune times. I was pleased with my latter reaction, believing it had come from doing lots of reading about people who had achieved much in history — including politicians, military figures and business leaders. To a person, it seemed, the one thing they all possessed was a determination to overcome any setback in the pursuit of their goals.
The Last Minute Win
Most people understand the concept of determination in the abstract, but fail to appreciate just what it means to when taken to its logical conclusion. By this, I mean that determination — along with persistence and resilience — means that one will not give up the struggle until they are (often literally) dead. The interesting thing is that many successful people have only found victory in the final moments before impending failure. This is an extremely important point. Wellington famously said of the Germans arriving at Waterloo just in the nick of time — thus allowing him to defeat Napoleon — that, “It had been a close-run thing.” This has always stuck with me. Supported by my reading of Robert Caro’s volumes on Linden Johnson, I have come to see that it’s ok — often required – that you only win at that last minute. This can give one comfort when entering what appears to be a final struggle for success.
Fake it Till You Make It (or Something Like That)
Leadership in good times is all about sharing the vision and spreading the cheer. That’s great, but as my friend Dave Miller (former Vice Chancellor for IT/CIO at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) always put in his signature lines:
“In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest” – Publilius Syrus
Which translates into: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”
And how do they do it? Well, storms have different phases. In the first, when you still have provisions below and a reasonable chance of survival, the leader can easily put on a brave face and espouse courage. This is not the test. The test comes when the everything the leader sees and knows (much privy only to him or her) indicates the ship is going down. Now, this is the interesting part — if the leader at that point reveals the true nature of the situation, it is very likely the ship will go down. This happens because those in the ranks are then unable to focus on the important tasks at hand. So, the leader instead keeps quiet, keeps the crew working and, sometimes, saves the day. Of course, there are ethical nuances here — when the captain knows the ship is going down, he must pull the trigger at some point and launch the lifeboats. The crew should not be consigned, without their knowledge, to go down with the ship.
Past Performance is the Best Indicator of Future Performance
There are certain lines of work in which it’s unclear who — among those without direct experience — will be successful. Specifically I’m thinking about war. I’ve read many books about many wars and the interesting thing is that some of the best generals who emerged were pretty much good at nothing else (Ulysses S. Grant comes to mind). In the early stages of past wars, some rose and some fell, and it was critical to the success of any long-term effort that rank was determined by accomplishments, not connections. This is why it’s much safer to hire someone who has successfully done the job in question before. Of course, everyone had to get a first chance at some point, but try to let others offer the proving grounds and do your vetting for you.
I got to thinking about leadership, persistence, and talent while reading, “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” by Rick Atkinson. Above are a few of the concepts it brought to mind, while below are a few of my favorite quotes, highlighting the same themes. Enjoy.
Henry Knox said, “We want great men who, when fortune frowns, will not be discouraged. I have always said it is misfortunes that will raise us to the character of a great people.”
Benjamin Franklin: “We learn, by chess, the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs — the habit of hoping for a favorable change and that of persevering in the search for resources.”
As Knox would write to his wife (about Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton), “Perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.”
The author on Washington: “His faith gave others faith; his strength made others strong.”
The author on building the army: “Only battle could reveal those with the necessary dark heart for killing — years of killing … only those with the requisite stamina, aptitude and luck would be able to see it through. And finally, one of war’s hard truths … for a new nation to live, men must die, often alone, usually in pain.”
Again, a common thread emerged: more important than any other qualities in a leader is fierce, unwavering determination.