Three minutes and 59.4 seconds.
That was the time history tells us was set by U.K. runner Roger Bannister on May 6, 1954, when he broke the four-minute mile barrier for the first time.
To running aficionados like myself, Bannister is a household name—much like Pele is to soccer fans and Tiger Woods to a fan of the links.
Bannister, though, was just one of the men that broke the record that day. Unlike history’s version, a true fan of running sees that the record was broken because of the efforts of three men on the track that day—Chris Chataway, Chris Brasher and Bannister. Bannister gets the credit in the history books simply because he crossed the finish line first, but he was able to do it because of the team of three. The other two men provided his pacing—an innovative approach to running at the time, and an idea sparked by Bannister himself. (Watch the race in full and listen as Bannister tells the story at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWqwi6FcyH8.)
He had tried repeatedly to break the four-minute barrier—something that everyone had said was humanly impossible—but realized that his approach was bordering on insanity. In his many attempts, he was, in fact, “doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein)
So Bannister developed a strategy that would prove the skeptics wrong, but in the process he made all three men better runners and changed the face of running for millions of others. The mark of a leader?
It depends on your definition of leader, but very simply defined, a leader is someone who helps others be their best, so based on that, wouldn’t Bannister be considered a leader? Wouldn’t we all?
There is a leader in all of us, says Doug Keeley, the CEO and chief storyteller at Mark of a Leader, something of which most of us tend to lose sight.
“Leadership is everybody’s responsibility,” Keeley told an assembly of more than 600 meeting professionals at MPI’s education session "Stories of Great Leadership in Times of Challenge and Change" at EIBTM in Barcelona, Spain. “A leader can be someone with hierarchy, sure—a queen, president or CEO—but that’s a very limited view. It’s not a very dynamic way of looking at leadership. We are all leaders. Too often we associate the term 'leader,' as someone at the 'top of the food chain' without realizing the potential in each of us to affect change and to improve those around us. And isn’t that the true definition of leadership?”
Keeley breaks down leadership into a simple five-step process.
“When all five levels are engaged, we as human beings can do anything we set our minds to,” Keeley said. “The first is our spirit, then our right brain (or imagination), then the left brain (or logic), then our heart (or passion) and finally, our hands.”
The lesson from Bannister’s story, Keeley says, is also that he knew change needed to happen in order to be successful and he affected that change directly.
Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”
Just like Bannister, Ford saw the opportunity to change that no one else at the time saw—he evolved his business and affected change in the world. Jack Welch took over General Electric in the mid-1990s and did the same thing—he said, “If we can’t be No. 1 or No. 2 in an industry, we’re just going to stop doing it.”
In all of these examples, it took courage to take a close look at the situation and realize it was change or watch the competition breeze on by, says Alan Elston, master storyteller at Mark of a Leader.
“Just as in the case of Roger Bannister (and it’s also true with Ford and Welch), the psychological barrier is far more difficult than the actual physical one,” Elston said. “Bannister and his team were very clear about their vision—four minutes and over, we fail; anything under four minutes we win.”
But it was the ability to see the need for change and to make that change reality that allowed Bannister, Ford and Welch to enjoy so much success.
“If you’re not constantly changing, someone else will be, and if you’re still bringing your clients a faster horse, your competitor will be bringing them the automobile,” Keeley said.
Don’t think of change as a daunting task though, Keeley says. Think of it in small doses.
“When you put a lot of incremental change together, you eventually get big change," he said. "There is no secret sauce to change . . . no special gene for leadership. The world has been changed by people like us.”
Five Things You Can do Today to be a Better Leader Tomorrow
1. Start with a great story. Great ideas come to light when people feel comfortable brainstorming, and that comfort level is reached at the point when it’s okay to be vulnerable, Elston says. “Start telling stories and others will follow,” he said. “As a leader you have to be vulnerable if you want your people to be vulnerable.”
2. Find your dirt floor. Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté set out with a vision of a new kind of circus—one with music and imagination rather than the traditional dirt floor and animals. “What’s your dirt floor?” Keeley asks. “What’s the thing that you see as a given before every event? If you got rid of it, it would totally change the world for your business.”
3. How collaborative is your culture? Cirque du Soleil prevents accidents by collaborating after every single show. The meetings happen before the mistakes. Ask everyone for their ideas and remember there is no bad idea.
4. Think simple. Apple found success in thinking differently. When the competition was focused on flashy marketing, Apple focused on simplicity. One of the most powerful gifts we can give our clients is simplicity, Keeley says.
5. Talk about outcomes. So you have a client stuck in their ways, huh? Doesn’t feel comfortable with change? “Start with what the outcomes will be,” Keeley said. “Then paint the picture of what the outcomes will be if you change things subtly.”
NOTE: Keeley’s presentation focuses on different stories of inspirational leadership each time it’s presented. If you missed it at EIBTM, you have another chance to experience Mark of a Leader January 27-29 at MPI’s European Meeting and Event Conference in Montreux, Switzerland. Register here: http://www.mpiweb.org/Events/EMEC2013/register.
"Lead With Your Heart, Not Just Your Head"—Harvard Business Review