Issue 1.8 | February 2010

In this Article: You can build a business that endures if you are guided by a passion that will last.

by Jonathan Wilson

Endurance.  It’s a gritty word, bringing to mind sweat, grime, dirty hands, tired muscles and mental focus.  Athletes endure hours, even days and weeks, of punishing exercise.  It’s a word of substance.  Great mediaeval cathedrals endure to this day, built with that most ancient resource: stone.

Passion is a word that stands in stark contrast: for many equate passion with emotion, and emotion is froth; insubstantial and fleeting.

I used to race competitively in road cycling and mountain biking.  Both are endurance sports.  The challenge when training for either discipline is that they require not just endurance strength, but sprint strength.  Once you have built up your endurance, a five hour training ride, at a low heart rate, is a genuine pleasure.  But sprint and speed training are quite another matter.  Chasing a motorcycle around a velodrome at 40-50kph, heart-rate maxed, lactic acid burning in the legs – or repeated hill intervals which leave you retching – these are simply painful.  As cycling legend Greg LeMond once said, “It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

What keeps a cyclist going through pain?  Passion.  What kept the mediaeval cathedral builders at work not just for a decade or two, but over the course of two generations, such that the original planners and builders sometimes never saw the final result?  Passion.

Equally, what will enable your company to persist through the inevitable pain and troubles that come our way in the business world, whether internal (e.g. politics, performance failures) or external (e.g. recession, competition)?

The endurance of your business will require ability, strength, processes, tools and resources that can stand the test of time.  But there is a kind of passion that endures, or, to put it differently, a passion that facilitates endurance.  For whether an athlete or the builder of a giant cathedral, ability-based endurance is not sustainable unless it is upheld by a passion that is equally durable.

A passion that lasts is, I believe, shaped by three characteristics:

  1. Moral: it reflects something we consider to be of deep worth.  The deeper the truth, conviction or value that underpins our passion, the longer it will last.  As my old mentor, Michael Cassidy, has pointed out, Apartheid became an economically unsustainable system because it was a morally untenable system (it collapsed in part because subjugating and oppressing millions of people was becoming too expensive!).    Today’s example is the abuse of credit.
  2. Aspirational: it takes us beyond where we are now. It stretches us to reach a new, and better, state of affairs than exists now – for ourselves or our customers, or ideally, both.
  3. Real: what it aspires to corresponds to the truth of how life and the world works – socially, economically, environmentally.  A lasting passion is ultimately very practical.  True passion yields results that work.

If a company’s passion is immoral, it will fail to withstand society’s (often slow but) sure intolerance of injustice.  If it aspires to little, it will fail to inspire.  If it is unreal, it will fail to work.

A discussion around business passion inevitably gives rise to the question of profitability – it is the bottom line, as we so often say.  I would argue that profitability is a healthy goal, but makes for a weak passion.  Profitability should instead function as an indicator of success, and success will arise wherever a passion that lasts is being pursued.

Is your business positioned to endure?  Is it upheld by a passion that will last?

Four Passions that Have Stood the Test of Time

In his book, Purpose: the Starting Point of Great Companies, Nikos Mourkogiannis describes four types of purpose found in great companies.  These purposes, he claims, have stood the test of time.  Because of this, I think they provide us with helpful categories with which to think about passion that drives endurance.   Your business may regard all four as worthy of attention, but somewhere in your company will be indications as to which type of purpose is spoken of most passionately.  This is the passion to pay attention to.

Here are what I will refer to as the four passions, which I have matched to companies we all know well:

  1. The first passion is for excellence.  This places a premium on quality.  Apple comes immediately to mind.  They pride themselves in both technical and aesthetic excellence in their quest to “[create] some of the best-loved technology on the planet”.
  2. The second passion is for discovery.  This places a premium on new solutions.  IBM is another technology company, but with a drive to seek out deep-level solutions that harness their scientific bent.  They see themselves as “the world’s most forward-looking company.”
  3. The third passion is for altruism.  This places a premium on the well-being of others.  However questionable its methods, Walmart has been, from the start, an initiative to make a wide range of goods accessible to the ordinary person.  Their tagline: “Save money.  Live better.”
  4. The fourth passion is for heroism.  This places a premium on adventure and risk with all its rewards.  Virgin and its subsidiaries reflect Richard Branson’s commitment to exploits on land and sea – and now space! In their own words, “Virgin stands for …  a sense of competitive challenge.”

These are companies that endure, because they have tapped into a passion that lasts.  Have you?

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