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Five Traits of Difference Makers: Persistence Makes Perfect

Executive Resource
Difference makers with the trait of Persistence have the ability to apply consistent and unyielding effort to difficult issues.
May 4, 2022

In our continuing series on Five Traits of Difference Makers, I would like to explore the tangible aspects of what are sometimes intangible traits. Let’s take a deep dive into the ability to diligently work the problem.

Persistence: the ability to apply consistent and unyielding effort to difficult issues

Persistence in Action

Observable skills that contribute to Persistence:

  • Day Two: The first day of any planning session, retreat, or brainstorming brings out everyone’s best. The persistent shine on the second day. Who on your team contributes when the low-hanging fruit has been picked and adrenaline and enthusiasm dwindle?
  • Finishing: Your colleagues with Persistence do not leave tasks undone. That seems both an obvious and low bar for professional behavior, but not everyone clears it. The persistent thrive on finishing, usually through goal setting and careful time management.
  • Contingencies: The persistent always have an alternative plan, and usually a third. Remember, persistent does not mean stubborn. When they encounter a roadblock, they respond by working the problem.
  • Calm Temperament: You have likely experienced the frantic problem solver colleague who leaps into hero mode in a crisis. That’s usually a sign of false persistence (veering toward self-aggrandizement). Look instead for the calm and even-keeled problem solvers. The persistent tend to be excellent team players.

Consider the following sets of numbers. These are the win/loss records of a young college basketball coach through his first three years at a school that aspired to excellence:




Year one results in an above-average season with inherited players. In year two our young coach attempts to build his own program with unsatisfying results. Year three: you’re fired! Because big time basketball does not tolerate failure, especially from someone who doesn’t demonstrate any prior success. Except no one was fired in this case. The coach in question persisted, as did his patient athletic director who held fast under intense pressure. Our young coach went on to win 1200 games, five national titles and made 13 Final Four appearances. Nicely done, Mike Krzyzewski.

We tend to attribute success to brilliance of strategy, tactics, and charisma. Indeed, you probably do not have a single colleague with the depth of talent across multiple competencies as Coach Krzyzewski. But persistence is often the forgotten (or ignored) ingredient in brilliance. You probably do have team members with elite persistence. Success we ascribe to brilliance is often explained by this trait, even among the most talented people we know. Persistence is a talent, not an intangible, inborn characteristic. It can be developed, nurtured and coached. We ignore persistence at our peril!

Breaking the Bias Against Persistence

Researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren studied the inherent bias in creative endeavors in Trends of Cognitive Science in October 2021. What they found was that beliefs about creative idea generation tend to overvalue insight (we sometimes call this brilliance) and undervalue persistence. For example, when conducting a brainstorming session, participants perceive that the best ideas will be generated in the early stages of the session. Most people believe that creativity will decline over time. That’s not true. One study on problem solving suggests the opposite. When asked after an ideation session what percentage of reasonable solutions to a problem (the solution space) had been generated, a focus group estimated around 75% (then collectively patted themselves on the back). Except…their ideas had generated less than half of that, perhaps 20-30%.

Applied, deliberate, unyielding and thoughtful effort consistently provides better—and more—results than intuition. If you know the people on your team who consistently apply such effort, then you have identified your best source of Persistence. Eureka moments are few and far between. Time on task wins the day more often than a brilliant insight out of thin air, particularly when the task proves difficult. Your first-grade teacher had this one right. Those who overestimate their own intuition and insight tend to disengage from the creative process too early. The persistent do not disengage. Remember the word “unyielding” from the definition.

The persistent also reveal themselves by responding positively to adversity. They are good people to have by your side in a storm, so to speak. Which colleagues bring that applied effort and calm to your organization during stressful times?

Persistence and the Emotional Intelligence Connection: Motivation…of a particular kind

Motivation in the emotional intelligence context describes intrinsic motivation. In other words, motivation that provides internal satisfaction, not dependent on external validation (recognition, financial reward, the avoidance of punishment). Persistent people apply consistent and deliberate effort because they enjoy the work. People are more likely to persist when an activity proves satisfying, stimulates their intellectual curiosity, and provides fun collaboration with others. They connect to mission and align their personal goals to the broader goals and objectives of the organization.

Self-awareness also plays a part. To illustrate, let us discuss what persistence is not: persistent is not stubborn. The stubborn settle on their preferred solution and defend it regardless of consequence. The persistent expand the solution space, rather than contracting it. In addition, the persistent are not martyrs. For the persistent, jealousy, resentment and general unpleasantness do not accompany the hard effort that is sometimes required in modern life and work. The truly persistent are those least likely to respond to a request with “you owe me one.”

Getting Personal

My father describes every individual as having an innate combination of attitude, ability, and effort. I should note that beyond the folksy fatherly wisdom, Dad is a psychiatrist who applied this concept in his clinical work. His point was that attitude and effort were the constraining factors on either side of ability. Ability or talent is a defined quantity in all of us, but our achievements correlate to our attitude and effort. These traits also correlate positively with mental health. Persistence is the backbone of attitude and effort.

In every professional or personal endeavor, think first about your natural ability in the domain. To what degree was your success attributable to talent? To what degree was your success attributable to Persistence (almost always paired with Homework)? We often face the myth of the brilliant performer for whom everything comes easy. But the myth is just that. Think about it like this:

Was Steve Jobs a genius? Probably.

Was Steve Jobs a relentless and deliberate grinder? Definitely.

Leading Questions

  1. We had a decent strategic planning session, but I am not sure we went deep enough. Who are some future participants in a focus group session who will really dig in?
  2. Our new client has a great concept. But the underlying explanation is not intuitive, and I am not sure how to unlock the market potential. Who has some ideas about this?
  3. For individuals in your organization who lack Persistence, think about your interactions as a leader. Is it possible that you are too accepting of their initial work products and not encouraging them to push harder?



The Leader’s Checklist: PERSISTENCE

How often does a member of your team exhibit these attributes?

Team Member:
Anonymous Smith
 Consistently  Usually  Sometimes  Seldom  Never  Not Applicable
Applied effort
Intristic motivation
Positive response to adversity
Effective contingency planning
Deliberate approach to problem-solving
Goal orientation / meeting deadlines


For other articles in this series:

© Copyright 2022 Adam Jones

Adam Jones writes and speaks regularly on management, leadership, and strategic governance. He is the organizational assessment practice leader for Weaver and Tidwell, L.L.P.


Five Traits of Difference Makers: Persistence