[One] leader who displayed tremendous perseverance is President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln once remarked, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.” He did continue to always move forward in his development as a leader, but to use his own words, his progress getting there could not have been slower or with more setbacks. I worked with a colleague in Texas who had a motivational poster about President Lincoln behind his desk. This poster described President Lincoln’s perseverance that developed his character and leadership. It read as follows:
He failed in business in ’31. He was defeated for state legislator in ’32. He tried another business in ’33. It failed. His fiancée died in ’35. He had a nervous breakdown in ’36. In ’43 he ran for Congress and was defeated. He tried again in ’48 and was defeated again. He tried running for the Senate in ’55. He lost. The next year he ran for Vice President and lost. In ’59 he ran for the Senate again and was defeated. In 1860, the man who signed his name A. Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States. The difference between history’s boldest accomplishments and its most staggering failures is often, simply, the diligent will to persevere.
Abraham Lincoln served as president during the American Civil War, and his leadership led to restoration of the Union. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery in the United States, and he championed the rights of former slaves. In a compilation of 17 polls from 1948 to 2011 that asked people to rank the best American president of all time, Abraham Lincoln was the aggregate number one, and he never ranked lower than number three in any poll. Abraham Lincoln overcame numerous personal tragedies and professional disappointments. He refused to let the opinions—and votes—of others define who he was or who he could become as a leader. Instead, he persevered through the numerous challenges in his life and, as attested by these polls, became the greatest leader in the history of the United States.
As a leader, you will, at one time or another, have a disappointing product release, suffer a tragic accident, endure a performance failure by you or a member of your team, lose a critical game, match, or race in a sporting profession, or be told by your boss—directly or indirectly—that he or she does not think you have the skills to lead at the next level, or maybe even lead at the level where you currently work. These are times when you need to demonstrate perseverance as a leader. You may not ever convince that difficult boss who thinks you can’t lead that you can, but you can convince your next boss by the way you perform. More important, you can continue to lead those under you, and provide guidance, vision, and mentorship for them, regardless of your boss’s opinion.
When you have that major setback, your employees, staff, factory workers, fellow shift members, team members, or members of a governmental function, or even state or country, will look to you as the leader for their inspiration. They will look to you to see how you handle the situation and if you overcome it, or if it overcomes you. Persevere in the face of difficulties, and you will be respected as a leader by those you lead and by those above you as well. In trying times, a leader must persevere, and you do that by never giving up, never giving in, and, in a word, leading.
The concept of a leader sharing credit for success and accepting responsibility for failure or disappointments may seem like a simple concept, but it is one that many leaders, or so-called leaders, like General McClellan, do not grasp.
When you earn Employee of the Month as night shift supervisor at McDonald’s, it should be because you had a great support team of coworkers. When the fry cooker catches on fire and causes several hundred dollars’ worth of damage, and the owner asks what happened, your answer, as the shift supervisor, should not be to throw the fry cook under the bus. Instead, say that while it was an accident, it might not have happened if you, as the supervisor, had done more to assist the new fry cook, and you accept responsibility for the incident.
When you win the MVP of the Super Bowl, it should be that you were just trying to do your part to lead your team to victory, and that victory would not have been possible without the great play of all of your teammates on offense, defense, special teams, and the great leadership and support of your coaches, staff, and owners. When you are the quarterback, head coach, or team captain of the team that lost the Super Bowl, when interviewed afterward about why you lost the game, your response should be that you did not do a good enough job in your leadership role on the team, and you feel terrible for letting your team down.
When you are CEO of a company and that company increases profits in a year by a substantial margin, you should not say it was due to your brilliant leadership and guidance, but because you had a great team throughout the entire business that enabled that success. And when quarterly earnings come in below estimated earnings two quarters in a row, you should place those results squarely upon your shoulders. You should state that you did not provide enough focus or vision or resources—or all of the above—for your team, and you accept responsibility for those quarterly results, but are motivated to learn from those faults and make changes to meet or exceed the earnings projections next quarter.
Those are just a few examples of ways to praise the team during success and take ownership of failings as a leader. The first part, sharing success, should not be so hard as a leader. Perhaps you provided the vision for success, and maybe you even “got your hands dirty” and were the key contributor to ensuring success. However, if the people under you see you giving credit to the whole team for the success, and not trying to hog all the glory for yourself (even though you may deserve most of it), don’t you think they will respect you more because they received praise for the successfully completed job, too? Don’t you think they will work even harder for you, and with you, in the future? Likewise, when things don’t go well, if you accept responsibility as the team leader, shift supervisor, CEO, or any other position of leadership, instead of blaming others—particularly those below you—for what went wrong, you will earn the respect of your subordinates or teammates because they know you “have their backs.” Share the good and shoulder the bad, and your people will respect you for both.
So, the first reason to empower key deputies is to develop the leaders of tomorrow by giving them insight into your thought processes and providing them honest feedback for their growth. The second reason to empower key deputies is that you can’t do everything yourself, not if you want to truly be a great leader. President Ronald Reagan remarked, “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” He was absolutely correct. “Delegate authority” and “empower key deputies” are synonymous. You know who the key deputies are on your team or in your organization. You know the people to whom you can delegate a task or project, and you know those individuals will accomplish that task or project in line with the vision, standards, and expectations you’ve established.
To be a great leader, you have to take the big-picture view. If you are stuck down in the minute details of every event or decision, you will never have time to look at the big picture. Furthermore, if you try to do everything yourself, instead of empowering key deputies to take some tasks off your plate, you will quickly find that you can’t finish every project or task on time. Alternatively, you may find a way to actually complete all of the tasks yourself in the time allotted, but you likely will not complete them as effectively as if you had shared the load with key deputies. You will rush steps or not be fully focused on key steps. You may be on time, but the quality will almost surely suffer if you try to do it all. By empowering key deputies to take on key tasks, you afford yourself the time to focus on critical tasks that really do require your individual attention as the leader. It also enables those key deputies to have a sense of significant contribution into the success of the organization—because they do. When you don’t try to do everything yourself, and you empower key deputies to help you lead, the entire team is more effective and successful, because you will have the time and focus to lead at the right level, if you’re not trying to lead at every level.
So now that you’ve identified key deputies and realized that you can’t—or certainly shouldn’t—do everything, the last reason for empowering key deputies is to have a trusted adviser or a small team of trusted advisers. You need to have people who can tell you the truth even when you might not want to hear it. They will be the people who can close your door and tell you that they do not think you are making the right decision regarding a particular policy, person, process, and so on, but these people will also be your staunchest supporters when that door opens, and they will back the final decision you made as if it were their own.