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Churchill’s take on hell

I'm fortunate to be an adviser to a great company in Colorado. In a board meeting one day, the CEO was describing a rough patch they were in the middle of while a fellow board member was opening a bottle of iced tea. He handed the CEO the bottle cap, which contained a brilliant saying by Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell ... keep going!"

A similar message came my way the night before at an event recognizing successful entrepreneurs. The overriding theme of success that came across wasn't luck, a trust fund or even brilliance - it was perseverance.

Perhaps you've noticed this as well. Many would like to call themselves entrepreneurs, but true entrepreneurs are risk takers and have a high level of perseverance to get through the many rough patches they encounter. When they get knocked down, they jump back up (it's a fine line between riding a dead horse and not giving up).

A partner in a large private equity firm recently told me he looks for a bit of irrational exuberance in the founders of companies the firm invests in. As he described it, "They must firmly believe that they have the best thing on the block, and it's my job to agree or disagree."

Mental toughness and good people skills will allow you to persevere and get a lot further as a leader - whether an entrepreneur or a hired gun - than a deep understanding of the Financial Accounting Standards Board rulings, subatomic particles or knowing how a hard drive works. IQ of 150? Great, but it won't give you a leg up on the guy who communicates more effectively with his people. Graduate of Oxford? Good, but if you crack under pressure like a corn tortilla in the hot desert sun, your persevering competitor will win the long race.

Because I work primarily with owners and senior executives, I rarely have to give the "buck up" speech. They know how to persevere. Much of our ability to persevere comes from our genetic material - if you have it, either Mom or Dad probably did as well. However, our teammates can also foster it. Do you allow people to fail? If not, you'll have a team unaccustomed to resistance and unable to work through difficult patches. Let them fail and support them to get back up and try again. (If you're running a nuclear power plant, ignore this advice. Hire perfectionists with the understanding that experimentation might suffer a bit!)

I recently read a great book about George Washington and learned some things about his leadership ability, particularly during the Revolutionary War. Thank goodness for his capacity to persevere! We were severely outnumbered and underfunded and had more defeats and setbacks than the king's soldiers, but Washington knew how to pick his fights and kept going as he went through hell. He'd been through many hardships before he seized the moment in one decisive battle.

Are your strong beliefs backed up by the firm backbone that you need to be successful?

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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