Impossible Leadership

Have you ever seen anyone perform the impossible?  We’ve all heard stories about the impossible; about superhuman strength during time of duress; about Cinderella stories; and of course, leaders that accomplish the improbable and the impossible.  What can leaders learn from this? How do we harness this magic?

·         In 2006, a Quebec woman wrestled a large polar bear that she saw a coming towards her son and another boy while they played. She tackled the polar bear and fought it while the boys ran for help. While she suffered some wounds, the polar bear ultimately lost the fight when she fought the bear off long enough for someone to shot and kill it. 

·         In 2009, a Kansas man saw a car run over his neighbor’s 6 year old daughter.  Without thinking, he ran over to the girl and pushed the car off the injured girl. 

·         In Tucson, Arizona, a man witnesses an accident where a Chevy Camaro ran over a bicyclist.  He lifted the 3,500 pound car off of the injured cyclist and held it for nearly a minute while the biker was pulled to safety. 

 

Notwithstanding the extreme examples that are provided above, we can still learn lessons in impossible leadership.  Here are some:

 

Buster Douglas versus Mike Tyson

 

Buster Douglas faced a heavyweight fight with champion Mike Tyson.  Everyone presumed this would be a characteristic quick knockout victory for Tyson.  Douglas’ mother had died only 23 days earlier.  Amid his stress and grief, Douglas trained hard and was able to use the advantage of his 12-inch reach.  Douglas stood tall and his jabs landed relentlessly on Tyson causing the champion to back up.  By the 10th round, Douglas knocked Tyson down with a well-placed uppercut to become the new heavyweight champion. 

 

IBM – Lou Gerstner

 

Lou Gerstner was Chief Executive Officer for IBM from 1993-2002.  He is credited with doing the impossible task of saving the life the company.  The job was viewed as impossible.  In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner made this observation before he made a decision to take the job:

 

“IBM sales and profits were declining at an alarming rate.  More important, its cash position was getting scary…I was convinced that …the odds were not better than one in five that IBM could be saved and that I should never take the position”

 

But Gerstner took the position anyway.  He reversed a decision to decentralize the company and create instead the various divisions to operate and manage themselves.  He relentlessly drove a strategy that was obsessed with the customer; encouraged innovation; committed to quality; and delivered performance and value to the customer.  His secret for accomplishing this impossible feat required being focused, being superb at execution, and using the full potential of personal leadership. 

 

Green Bay Packers – Vince Lombardi

 

Legendary Coach Vince Lombardi is regarded as one of the best coaches in history.  He became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers after they finished a season with one win and ten losses.  Believing in the importance of physical conditioning, he established a rigorous training camp program.   In his first season, the improved team finished with a 7-5 record.  At the end of his second year, he took the team to the championship and nearly won but saw his only post-season lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.  He went on for the next two seasons to lead Green Bay to NFL Championship. 

 

The examples above had three things in common:

 

·         They prepared.

·         They believed.

·         They executed. 

 

Impossible Leadership requires preparation.  You must study, do background work, perform analysis, and understand the context.  Lombardi was known to have a brutal training camp.  Yet, his players were always in the best condition to execute the game plan he put forward.

 

You have to believe that what you want to do can be done.  In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill provides the following verse about the importance of belief:

 

“If you think you are beaten, you are,

If you think you dare not, you don’t

If you like to win, but you think you can’t,

It is almost certain that you won’t. “

 

And finally, you must perform some action and obtain a result.  Gerstner believed more in execution than in vision.  He believed that IBM needed to execute well and just skip the vision-thing. 

 

“So the most important strategic priority for IBM becomes, when you peel it to the core, to execute what it knows – and has known for years.  Execution will lead IBM back to success.”

 

So, yes, leaders can do the impossible.  But to do so, they must prepare themselves and their organizations; they must believe and create the sense of belief in the organizations they lead; and they must do more than give lip service to all of this.  They must act and produce results. 

 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

 

7 thoughts on “Impossible Leadership”

  1. Excellent post, Linda! I love the examples… So varied, yet all the same. I think most people (I know vie been guiltynof this before) forget… Or are just lazy… To prepare… The rest is much easier once you’ve prepared. It’s like building a house… What would you build first…. The foundation. I always ask myself… Am I standing on sturdy ground…. Full speed does no good without it;)

    Thank you!

  2. Excellent words of wisdom, as usual. It is such a simple and clear message. I particullarly like the “vision thing” discussion. What good does vision do you if you cannot execute.

    I also find the following quote to be very true and on target–you know what I mean…

    “If you think you are beaten, you are,
    If you think you dare not, you don’t
    If you like to win, but you think you can’t,
    It is almost certain that you won’t.”

    Will share your examples with my staff and colleagues.

    Thanks,
    Ef

  3. Linda,

    5 Stars! I love your examples. In our business it is far too easy to succumb cynicism and become an Eeyore. It requires discipline to know the facts and the odds and still labor to prevail. I love your Lombardi reference – I use him as a shining example of this. Especially 90% of our effort is blocking and tackling (engineering, assignment and execution).

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Kevin Behr

  4. “In 2006, a Quebec woman wrestled a large polar bear that she saw a coming towards her son and another boy while they played. She tackled the polar bear and fought it while the boys ran for help. While she suffered some wounds, the polar bear ultimately lost the fight when she fought the bear off long enough for someone to shot and kill it.”

    I’m sorry but do you have a link to that story? I live in Québec and never heard about this. You do know a polar bear would kill an unarmed human with absolutly no problem at all?

  5. I just found your blog unexpectedly from the search engine. First time I saw it, I know it’s a very informative blog. I got so many something new from here. Good work and thanks for that!

Comments are closed.