Professional Perspectives

When the Going Gets Tough…

When the Going Gets Tough

Arthur D. Collins, Jr.
Managing Partner

I played a lot of team sports when I was young, mostly basketball, baseball, and football. There were many slogans that I remember seeing posted on the locker room walls. Some were better than others, but all of them were put there to inspire players to give their best, to help their teammates, and to never give up. One slogan that particularly drew my attention was, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Some people might consider these words trite, but they have stuck with me over the years. Time and again, I’ve also found the words rang true—whether I was playing in or watching sporting events, as my business career evolved, and during the ups and downs of everyday life.

Like many others, I’ve been following a coronavirus “shelter-in-place” directive for the past week or so. Since I’ve had some spare time on my hands, I decided I’d try to dissect that slogan and consider why the underlying message has proven to have been so accurate, so powerful, and so enduring. My conclusion was that it has little to do with physical strength or raw talent. No, the one word I kept coming back to was: character.

There have been plenty of documented cases where individuals’ or teams’ true character were tested and when, against all odds, they rose to the occasion, persevered, and ultimately triumphed. For example, the best-selling book Unbroken chronicled long-distance runner Louis Zamperini’s difficult road to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and then the unimaginable hardships he endured while a World War II prisoner of war on the island of Kwajalein and then in Japan.

Other stories of American true grit and determination played out during those 1936 Olympics. Jesse Owens took home four gold medals, upsetting Hitler’s carefully orchestrated promotion of Nazi prowess and Aryan race superiority. The University of Washington eight-oar crew also fulfilled their hard-fought quest and won a come-from-behind gold medal. Once again American courage and resolve were on display as one of the greatest upsets ever recorded in Olympic history took place 44 years later in Lake Placid, New York when the U.S. men’s hockey team defied oddsmakers in their “Miracle on Ice” victory over the world champion Soviet Union team that was the prohibitive favorite to win another gold medal.

Just as relevant are countless unpublicized everyday struggles and small victories like the single mother successfully working two jobs in order to make ends meet, or the homeless child who comes to school hungry each morning but with homework assignments completed. These unsung heroes are in their own way overcoming adversity and defying the odds in the hope of creating a better life for themselves and their families.

There is no doubt that adversity magnifies inherent personality and character traits. An uphill challenge or a full-blown crisis brings out the best and the worst in people, whether they act alone or as part of a larger group. In times of trouble, people also look to their leaders for information, guidance, inspiration, and a clear path forward. And in my book, leadership is all about character.

In discussing the following characteristics I’ve observed in successful leaders, I could have cited numerous examples from the world of sports, business, and many other walks of life. However, I’ve chosen to focus on previous heads of state since they have been so visible and critically important during times of crisis.

Successful leaders tell the truth and don’t candy-coat or minimize the magnitude of the challenge ahead; at the same time, they are able to state succinctly how they intend to deal with the problems at hand.

Winston Churchill’s speech before Parliament 80 years ago is a prime example in this regard. Facing a growing threat from the Nazis in World War II, newly appointed Prime Minister Churchill clearly and succinctly stated, “If you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war by sea, land, and air with all our might.” Churchill’s honest and inspiring words that followed leveled with the British population as to what they should expect in the months and years ahead: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Time magazine in 2003 included that speech in its 80 Days That Changed the World, saying, “What he gave his country, above all, was leadership.”

Churchill’s most important ally during World War II was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The one sentence most people cite from FDR’s first inaugural address is, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” However, recognizing the power of frank and honest communication, FDR actually opened his address with these words: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, frankly, and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing the conditions in our country today.”

Successful leaders have integrity, and their actions and words are decisive, unambiguous, and steadfast; they also recognize that unprincipled, continually changing, or confusing messages and behavior are counterproductive and only end up destroying trust and confidence in their judgement and their ability to lead.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, widely considered by historians to be two of the United States’ greatest presidents, understood this basic tenet well. As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington may not have been the greatest battlefield strategist, but his ability to communicate a clear, consistent, and unwavering message earned him unshakable allegiance from his troops that led to a decisive victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia and ultimately the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783.

Historians also agree that Lincoln’s ability to establish, to clearly and eloquently communicate, to gain support for, and then to stick to principled goals were major reasons that his presidency and the Union Army prevailed during the American Civil War that ended in 1865. It also should be noted that Lincoln refused to bow to pressure to end the war early by abandoning his support of the Emancipation Proclamation he had signed in January 1863.

Successful leaders step up and take responsibility, always putting the best interests of the organizations they lead ahead of their own personal gain; a leader who does the opposite can’t be trusted.

In the realm of business, the Duty of Loyalty defined under Delaware law requires that all directors devote their loyalty to the corporation and its stockholders, without consideration to their self-interest. Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t a businessman, but the battle-tested Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force on D-Day knew quite a bit about leading during a time of crisis. President Eisenhower defined leadership as “nothing more than taking responsibility, including for everything that goes wrong while giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.”

Harry S. Truman followed Roosevelt as president. Four months into office, President Truman took the gut-wrenching decision to drop two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that quickly thereafter ended WWII. Truman knew that the decision was his alone, and he also recognized that he would be widely criticized in many circles for the action he took. Very visible proof that Truman knew what presidential leadership meant was the placard he kept on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.” Truman also noted, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Successful leaders recognize that part of taking responsibility is admitting and correcting mistakes made on their watch, even if the mistakes were not of their doing; they also understand that the inability to do so will only prolong a bad situation and erode their credibility.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “It is the measure of a man that he can admit when he’s wrong.” Lincoln didn’t believe it was a sign of weakness to own up to a mistake, just as he did in 1863 when he admitted that he was wrong and General Ulysses S. Grant was right about the battle strategy for a pivotal Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg. President Andrew Johnson echoed Lincoln’s words when he observed, “Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation when he is in error.”

More recently, both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan publicly admitted mistakes and took responsibility. In 1961, JFK took personal responsibility for the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, remarking, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Then, 26 years later, Ronald Reagan admitted his failing and took personal responsibility for the Iran-Contra scandal, giving the following advice: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake like this? You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on.”

Successful leaders not only understand the personal challenges people face, they show genuine empathy and then take action to provide needed comfort and help; disingenuous words and deeds in a time of crisis never suffice and only end up projecting callous indifference.

Whether listening to his “fireside chats” or watching the bold actions taken to help end the Great Depression, Americans may not have agree with everything President Franklin D. Roosevelt did, but they always knew he cared deeply for people in need. It wasn’t surprising that U.S. News reported that one of FDR’s most important attributes was his “ability to empathize with his fellow citizens, to show that he cared for them and would do everything he could to help them.”

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Abraham Lincoln had “extraordinary empathy—the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires.” Lincoln’s genuine empathy for others was evident when he pushed for and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, when he often visited with and comforted injured or dying Union soldiers, and when he wrote the words for the Gettysburg address that described the government as one “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Successful leaders recognize they can’t do everything themselves, so they select and vet capable staff, they delegate well, they encourage honest and open communication even though sometimes the truth may be difficult for them to hear, and they are able to retain top talent; leaders who have not learned these critical lessons will never reach their full potential or achieve greatness.

Upon becoming president, John F. Kennedy sought to bring on board some of the brightest and most accomplished leaders in industry and academia. Kennedy often said that his encouragement of the “whiz kids” to speak their minds resulted in more informed and better decisions than he ever could have made on his own. This proved to be the case as President Kennedy and his senior advisors developed and executed what eventually proved to be a highly successful strategy to achieve U.S. objectives while diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

President Ronald Reagan later gave this sound bit of advice: “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.” In his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Secretary of State Colin Powell credits President Reagan’s ability to delegate with much of the Reagan Administration’s success. By the way, General Powell agreed with Truman and other presidents when he also said, “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Successful leaders stay cool under fire; they understand that erratic, mercurial behavior is both unsettling and dangerous, and that it quickly erodes confidence in their ability to lead in good and bad times.

Churchill and all the American presidents previously mentioned at one time or another were tested during a crisis—some during war, some with the threat of war, and some post-war. In addition, all of them dealt with other types of crises during their time in office. Numerous members of their cabinets and White House staffs have commented that when a president stays calm with a steady hand on the tiller, it helps the staff perform better under pressure. That calm, steady approach to leadership also provides confidence to the general public that they will be able to weather a crisis.

I must admit that Winston Churchill is a personal hero of mine, so let me return to where I started with my examples of what successful leaders have done in times of great crisis—Churchill’s now-famous “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech before Parliament in 1940. It has been reported that Churchill was the calmest man in the Chamber that day, sometimes with his hands in his pockets. When he spoke the following words, he did so calmly, forcefully, and with great resolve: “What is our aim? Victory at all costs and in spite of all terrors; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”


This is time when “the going is tough;” in fact, very tough. While some historians may postulate how 20th century presidents like FDR, Ike, and JFK might have handled the coronavirus crisis if it happened on their watch, it would only be hypothetical speculation. However, what we do know for sure is that at this time medical experts can’t accurately predict how many people ultimately will be infected by COVID-19, or how many of them will be unable to survive this invisible virus that knows no state or national border. This also is a time when many in the United States and around the world are justifiably scared; a time when most people, including me, are looking for answers, hope, and a bit of cheer in the face of this global emergency.

We can only hope that it’s also a time when “the tough get going;” a time when all leaders in government, in industry, and in our nonprofit institutions rise to the occasion and display the character that will successfully bring us through this crisis—even stronger, wiser, and better able to cope the next time adversity strikes.

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