They each had failure after failure in their lives. It was a time of major conflict, both emotional and physical. A certain type of leadership was necessary in order to achieve success. The ones who were losing, ended up winning. The winners ended up winning as a result of their persistence.

As we approach President’s Day this February 17th, there are two significant examples of leaders who transformed our country; George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet, both of these great men had faced repeated failure in their personal, professional, and political lives.

As famous as these men became, their backgrounds were quite different, as well. George Washington was rich while Abraham Lincoln was poor. Washington’s personality was distant and quite formal while Lincoln had a very open, friendly personality with a dry sense of humor.

On the other hand, they had similar qualities too, including honesty, integrity, and a love for God and country. But, failure was probably the biggest similarity between the two men. Of all the battles Washington was involved in during the Revolutionary War, he had only won two of them. Interestingly enough, the fledgling country he helped found, was truly losing battle after battle, but ultimately ended up winning the war. One of the two battles Washington won was the battle for Yorktown. The British Army had driven Washington and his troops from Long Island, the East River, Brooklyn, and basically all around New York. But at Yorktown, Washington took his stand and defeated the British and General Cornwallis. In fact, Cornwallis is quoted as saying “Sir, I salute you. Not only are you a great leader of men, but an indomitable Christian gentleman who wouldn’t give up.” 

Lincoln has a more familiar string of failures attached to his name. He failed in business, lost his race for the state legislature, lost his race for Congress, and did not win in his attempt to be nominated as Vice-President. But eventually, he was elected President of the United States at one of the worst times in the brief history of our country. And yet, during his leadership, with dogged determination, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately abolished slavery while preserving the country.

Academic and political scholars both concede each of these great men and their persistence was the right leadership style to have at the right time in the brief life of the United States of America.

Renowned author Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her recent book entitled Leadership in Turbulent Times, considers many styles of leadership. She proceeds to identify many management and leadership qualities attributed to several Presidents over time including both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson, and of course, Lincoln. Here are a few of her observations as they relate to Lincoln and his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation:

“Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction” – By the middle of 1862, the Union Army under George McClellan had suffered defeat after defeat. Lincoln recalled “Things had gone from bad to worse.” With his back against the wall, Lincoln decided to make a change. His Emancipation Proclamation was intended to force the convergence of abolishing slavery and preserving the union at the same time.

“Anticipate contending viewpoints”- Leaders might even want to go so far as to encourage contending viewpoints. It can help the due diligence process while providing different perspectives for solving the same problem.

‘Know when to hold back and when to move forward”- Timing is everything. Leaders need to be aware of as many circumstances as possible in order to make a decision at the optimal time.

“Set an example”- It should not be difficult for a true leader to rise above the fray. Many difficult situations arise as the result of too many egotistical, overly ambitious, jealous, and selfish people trying to make a decision. The leader will see those people for what they are and what they represent. The leader will be able to lead “with malice toward none.”

“Control angry impulses”- When a leader becomes angry, they need to be able to vent. Some people write down their thoughts in order to purge them from their mind and allow them to get on to the next task. Then, at a later time re-visit what made them angry, reviewing what they wrote down, then taking the appropriate action.

“Keep your word”- Do what you say you are going to do. If a leader cannot keep their word, the probability of failure increases dramatically, not to mention many people questioning the integrity of the leader.

While persistence is not a guarantee of success or business growth, it can certainly be a quality that can help you overcome adversity. History has shown us many times where persistence resulted in the growth and success of businesses and our country.

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