The real secret of success? Total commitment

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Peter Drucker

They say that some people should not even attempt what they attempt. But they are so committed to a definite objective that more often than anyone can believe possible, they are successful.

Even today business experts marvel at Steve Jobs and his company Apple, Inc. which Jobs, with no college degree, started in his garage. His "garage-generated device" became the foundation of an entire industry.

The Drunken Paraplegic and 25thWealthiest Man in the U.S.

And they said it couldn’t be done…

Bill Bartmann, was a drunken hell-raiser whose most outstanding accomplishment by age 17 was working in a pig slaughterhouse. One night, totally blotto, he fell down a darkened staircase.

Even in his inebriated state he knew he was in trouble, because he couldn’t move his legs. Brought as emergency case to a local hospital, the doctor gave him the bad news the following day.

"You’ve damaged your spinal cord irreparably," he was told, "and you’re now a paraplegic. You’ll never walk again. If you don’t move the paralysis won’t get worse, but don’t exert yourself. Any stress will only make things worse."

Bartmann decided right then what he was going to do. He decided that he would walk. That was his definite purpose and he was totally committed to it. However he was starting from zero. He couldn’t even wiggle a single toe. But he began right then and continued every night.

Violating the doctor’s orders he spent nights concentrating and exercising at this single activity – getting just one toe to move. He had to do this in secret, because his nurses were instructed to keep an eye on him to make certain that he didn’t exert himself or do something that the doctor considered foolish.

It was weeks of painful exercise in secret before he could move a single toe. It was months before he could do more, but one day he actually stood up by himself! When the nurses saw him stand by himself they were thrilled. His doctor however was furious. His doctor told him that he would become completely paralyzed or worse if he persisted and threatened to have the nurses fired if they couldn’t control him.

However, he didn’t stop and one day, some months later, Bartmann was able to walk unaided across the sickroom. He was discharged from the hospital with a cane. The cane soon was discarded when he took up Karate and Bartmann earned his black belt.

Using the same principle, he went back to college and earned his degree and later got accepted to law school, graduated, and became an attorney. But that’s not all, he started his own company and was written up in Forbes and other business magazines because at one point he had become the 25thwealthiest man in America, right ahead of Ross Perot.

I have the honor of having him on my Presidential Board of Advisors at the California Institute of Advanced Management. If you want to know more about Bill, and how he accomplished so much, I advise you to get a copy of his book, Bouncing Back. You’ll learn a lot. I did.

The First Rule of All Success

Almost a hundred years ago Napoleon Hill, a lawyer turned newspaperman was commissioned by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to uncover the secret of success. Hill spent twenty years on his research and wrote extensively about his discoveries.

Rule number one was what Hill called "definiteness of purpose." In other words, every successful individual that Hill interviewed and analyzed, from Henry Ford to Thomas Edison had total commitment to a definite objective, just as Bill Bartmann.

The Magic of Commitment to an Objective in Leadership

Several years ago I did the research which resulted in the book, The Stuff of Heroes. I surveyed and interviewed more than 200 combat leaders from all military services and from all ranks from private through four-star general and admiral. I asked these battle veterans, all of which had gone on to extraordinary positions of leadership in civilian life, what if anything they had learned from leading in combat that they successfully applied in their civilian careers.

In fact, I asked for three specific items. Later I talked with hundreds of civilian leaders, too. That’s how I first met Bill Bartmann.

I thought I would get hundreds of ideas and would write a book of leadership ideas the size of a small encyclopedia. I was amazed to discover that ninety-five percent of the responses I received fell into only eight categories.

One of these eight laws of leadership was to show total or "uncommon" commitment. What’s so special about showing uncommon commitment? Why do others follow a leader who demonstrates this quality both on and off the battlefield?

Psychologists have identified two main reasons why showing uncommon commitment yields such dramatic results:

  • It proves that the goal is worthwhile and really important
  • It proves that the leader isn’t going to quit when the going gets rough

We Go All Out Only for Important Goals

We usually don’t exert ourselves very much for small, unimportant goals. We and others who would support us work hard, take great risks, and let nothing stop them only for big, important goals. That’s why leaders who try to play down the difficulty of a task, or strategists who think too small make a big mistake.

It is far better to be honest with yourself and others and tell things exactly as they are no matter how serious the situation or how much the effort will require.

Big Goal, Big Success

A few years ago, Amilya Antonetti said she was going to break into the $4.7 billion U.S. laundry-detergent market. Everyone knew this was impossible. Large corporations like Proctor & Gamble dominate that business.

Amilya consulted industry experts. According to her own account, they all laughed hysterically. But the soap that was on the market aggravated her infant son’s health problems.

According to Ms. Antonetti: "SoapWorks was born out my baby’s frantic cries for help. My infant son David’s first years of life were mysteriously filled with nonstop screaming, breathing difficulties, and rashes. After countless hospital visits, I turned to homeopathic and alternative doctors for help. They suggested I become my own detective and study David’s environment and symptoms to see what was causing his severe reactions. I kept a detailed daily journal of David’s life, including when and where he reacted, and eventually discovered David’s screams and difficulties were an allergic reaction to the chemicals in everyday cleaning products. The household cleaners from the grocery store shelves were loaded with toxic chemicals! When I tried natural cleaners, David did not react adversely to them, but they were expensive, hard to find, and did not clean very well.

"So I started making my own natural soap products. I spent endless hours speaking with Moms, Dads, and people all over, especially those with sensitivities, asking them what kinds of cleaning products they would make for their own home if they could have anything. When I shared my cleaners with friends and neighbors, word spread like wildfire.

"That was when I decided to start my own company. I hired a team of top formulators and worked with them to design a line of natural soap-based household cleaners for those who suffer from allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivities – and for those who want the safest products and the cleanest clean for their families at the best price."

"We liquidated everything we had to put into this business idea," says Amilya. "My husband gave up his career."

That’s another example of total commitment. Antonetti’s company SoapWorks went on to dominate shelf space in 3000 stores and annual revenues in excess of $10 million.

I call this the real secret. It’s not the size of your goal or anything else that is of overriding importance. It’s total commitment that gets you through every time.