By Charles Foster Johnson
Whatever we know about the art of leadership, we cannot program it. Tens of thousands of books on leadership notwithstanding, its characteristics are maddeningly elusive.
But one trait of leadership makes every cut: perseverance.
Here’s why. True leaders broker values, which are things that are not easily implemented. In the best organizational cultures, they are resisted; in the worst, they are strenuously opposed. Because values entail organic and intrinsic change, they produce conflict. If this does not happen, they are not values. They may be opinions, suggestions, ideas, or strategies—but not values.
Therefore, what every leader needs most is perseverance. A hard head. A tough mind. A thick hide. In Nietzsche’s famous words, “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Jesus knew something about values and the backlash they can produce. He put it this way, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day” (Luke 9:62, The Message).
To illustrate the power of stubborn persistence, Jesus told a story about a widow who bugged the daylights out of a judge for a favorable ruling until, lo and behold, the judge held in her favor (Luke 18.1-8, The Message). “I better do something and see that she gets justice,” the judge reasoned, “or else I’m going to end up beaten black and blue by her pounding.”
In Luke’s Gospel, the widow is a metaphor of marginalization. On five different occasions in Luke, Jesus tells stories about widows. They were among the lowest of the low in first-century patriarchal society. Having lost their husbands, they were cut off from their religious identity and economic livelihood. Frequently, they had to turn to prostitution in order to care for themselves and their children. Possessing no power or influence, perseverance was all they had.
The widow in Jesus’s story has no money to buy off the judge, who would have likely accepted a bribe given his unsavory character. She has no political power, no well-heeled connections to use as leverage against this rascal on the bench. Her only alternative, her sole strategy, is to pester the fool out of him. She badgers him. She bothers him. She bugs him. She will not change the subject. Day after day, she shows up in his courtroom with the same plea. Same song, fifty-seventh verse. The literal translation of the Greek text is a comical image: “she wore him out with her continual coming.” She will not back down, give up, cave in, or go away. She has a value—namely, justice—and she will not quit until her value wins.
She’s not going to be quoted in the Wall Street Journal, but this widow is a corporate wunderkind, a hero of hard-headed stick-to-it-iveness. She is precisely the kind of leader companies today are looking for. Finally, because of her long obedience in the same direction, the woman’s vision for justice gets implemented.
A medieval monk was approached by a simple peasant in the village that lay at the foot of the mountain monastery. “You holy men up there on the mountaintop are so close to God,” the peasant said. “You seem so peaceful, so strong in your faith, so at one with yourself and the Lord. Please tell me your secret of how you live so intimately with God.” The monk replied, “Simple. We fall down and we get back up. We fall down and we get back up. We fall down and we get back up.”
Everybody falls down. Leaders get back up.