Mount Rushmore National Monument to Persistence

A few years ago, I visited Mount Rushmore for the first time and wondered why I hadn’t gotten there sooner. Put it on your “places to go list”; it’s pretty impressive. The 500 ft. famous faces of four Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are snuggled shoulder-to-shoulder in granite, 7242 feet above sea level. This monumental project encompassed the 14 remaining years of 60-year old Gutzon Borglum’s life. The sculptor began in 1927 with 400 local miners under his guidance and the carving was completed under his son’s direction seven months after his death.

Project Management at Its Best

Borglum built a model of the completed sculpture to¬† transfer the portrait of the four figures onto the granite cliff. He mounted a protractor on top, and attached a metal rod to pivot outward across an arc of measurement over the model’s face. He then attached a plumb bob to the end of the metal rod to determine the horizontal distance, in inches, from any point on the string to the nearest point on the model. A similar design, 12 times larger, was installed on the mountain. By substituting feet for inches, workers were able to determine how much rock needed to be removed. When they finished roughing out the figures, they then used “honeycombing” techniques with air-powered tools to drill closely spaced holes to exact depths. Chisels and hammers were used to break away the rock between the holes. Work crews blasted within 4 inches of the finished surface and removed 90% of the 450,000 tons of granite from the mountain with dynamite. The final process was known as “bumping”, where pneumatic drills and special bits graded contours of the lips, nose, cheeks, neck and brow resulting in a finished surface as smooth as a concrete sidewalk.

A Profile in Persistence

There is a laminated card on my desk that urges, “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I can only imagine there were days, weeks, months – years even, when Borglum and his crew were discouraged, disheartened and didn’t at all want to press on. There were probably times when the weather got bad, money dried up, workers got sick and they looked for the fastest way off that mountain. Perhaps interpersonal squabbles threatened to interfere with the work at hand.Borglum may have anticipated that possibility at the christening of this national shrine when he said, “We believe the dimensions of national heartbeats are greater than village impulses, greater than city demands, greater than state dreams or ambitions.”

In other words, Mount Rushmore stands as a tribute not only to four visionary leaders, but also to anyone who looks to see the deeper message carved into that mountain.The dusty, unemployed miners who showed up for $1.25/hour in the Great Depression, may have originally been drawn by the paycheck, but quickly bought into the spirit of the challenge. Workmen who hung suspended “face to face” from the granite carving relied on each other to come down safely at the end of each day. (Surprisingly, there were no deaths and few injuries, despite the use of heavy equipment and dynamite during those 14 years!) Mount Rushmore is proof that anyone can achieve great things when they commit to a noble cause, inspire dedicated teams, get beyond the petty issues that derail great endeavors and are willing to persist for the long haul!

Persistence Rarely Stands Alone

Persistence doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s often the insightful and talented leader who provides a nudge in the right direction – who illustrates just how important our work is for the greater good. My younger son is lucky in that regard. Both he and his brother enlisted in the United States Air Force and like the good boys that they are, they made every effort to call their mom on a regular basis. When my younger son called one night he said, “You know Mom, it’s not easy pulling these 12-hour shifts. I’m pretty tired, but the thing that makes me get up and go back out there is ’cause my Chief comes along at the end of every day and thanks me personally for something he noticed I did that day. Somebody at some leadership school probably told him he had to do that, but I don’t care. It helps a lot.”

People need to know how they contribute and often, how TO contribute. They sometimes need a model to practice on before letting ’em loose on the real deal. Borglum knew he couldn’t take hordes of miners up onto that 7242 foot cliff with just a drawing in his hands and expect them to know how to transfer the image onto the stone. By developing the protractor and plumb bob apparatus, he gave them a method through which they could do what they do best to insure the most expedient and successful outcome. It’s a heck of a lot easier to persist and persevere when you have a skeleton of a support structure to guide you through the inevitable bumps in the road, or in this case, on the rock.

A Result to be Proud of

Persistence thrives in an environment where the end result is something folks can be proud of. Regardless of the work at hand, everyone shares in pride of ownership with a job well done. Borglum’s 400 miners built roads, constructed buildings, generated power, took measurements and sharpened thousands of bits for the pneumatic drills. One driller, Norman “Happy” Anderson said, “I put the curl in Lincoln’s beard, the part in Teddy’s hair and the twinkle in Washington’s eye. It still gives me a thrill to look at it.” And how thrilling it is also for the families who now point proudly to their relative’s historic contribution.

Achievements need not be historic to inspire great surges of energy, enthusiasm, commitment and perseverance. It does, however, require a tangible outcome – something that’s quantifiable that folks can set their eyes upon or wrap their arms around. The worst damage we could ever do is to lead them through the process and then abruptly yank away the reward – that pride of ownership – by saying, “This was just a test to see if you could really do it.” Or “We now know the process works, but sorry to say, we won’t ever be able to implement it.”

I’m sure there will be other national monuments, historic treasures or cultural wonders that will inspire a similar sense of aw as I felt at Mount Rushmore. You know the drill – you make the drive, pay the admission and snap the photos. It’s easy to stand and admire the end result and overlook the fact that the people who toiled to construct such marvels weren’t much different than you or I. They possessed very similar human failings and faced challenges just as regularly as we do. They had to overcome obstacles, foul moods, bad bosses and poor health. Yet, look at what they were able to do! I hope when you drive through the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota and look up at the four famous faces of Mount Rushmore, you leave with the knowledge that anything is possible!