“Leaders volunteer to go first into danger. Their willingness to sacrifice for us is the reason we’re inspired to follow.”
— Simon Sinek
I recently found myself rereading a story about Roger Bannister, the first person to run under a four minute mile. Up until the moment that that particular time barrier was finally broken, the experts said no one would ever be able to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was widely believed that the human body was not capable of operating at that pace, for that distance. The mile record of 4:01 stood for almost ten years as runners seemingly became convinced that the experts might be right. Maybe the human body had reached its limit. Running that distance in under 4 minutes was perceived as an impossible feat, until May 6, 1954, when British runner Roger Bannister did the impossible and ran a mile in 3:59.4. Obviously the story doesn’t end there; to me, what is even more impressive is what happened after Bannister did the undoable. Below is a list of runners who would break the four minute mile barrier over the next five years after Bannister’s race.
May 6, 1954 – Roger Bannister – 3:59.4
June 21, 1954 – John Landy – 3:57.9
May 28, 1955 – László Tábori – 3:59.0
May 28, 1955 – Chris Chataway – 3:59.8
May 28, 1955 – Brian Hewson – 3:59.8
May 5, 1956 – Jim Bailey – 3:58.6
June 1, 1956 – Ronnie Delany – 3:59.0
June 1, 1956 – Gunnar Nielsen – 3:59.1
August 6, 1956 – Derek Ibbotson – 3:59.4
August 26, 1956 – István Rózsavölgyi – 3:59.0
March 23, 1957 – Merv Lincoln – 3:58.9
June 1, 1957 – Don Bowden – 3:58.7
July 19, 1957 – Stanislav Jungwirth – 3:59.1
July 19, 1957 – Ken Wood – 3:59.3
July 19, 1957 – Dan Waern – 3:59.3
August 7, 1957 – Olavi Vuorisalo – 3:59.1
September 4, 1957 – Roger Moens – 3:58.9
January 25, 1958 – Herb Elliott – 3:59.9
August 6, 1958 – Murray Halberg – 3:57.5
August 6, 1958 – Albie Thomas – 3:58.6
September 3, 1958 – Zbigniew Orywal – 3:59.7
May 28, 1959 – Siegfried Valentin – 3:56.5
All of these record breaking runs took place after Roger Bannister, believing it was possible, worked toward his goal to personally achieve this great feat. He opened the door for other runners, after proving it was possible to himself and others, to also achieve what was considered undoable. Bannister served the running community by breaking through the barrier. Thus, the rest of the running world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for almost ten years was broken again and again. Today, even elite high schoolers have run under four minutes in the mile.
So what is the lesson here? If you train hard enough you can run a four minute mile? I cannot speak for you, but I don’t foresee a four minute mile in my future. Yet, I do see the three stages of possibility in Bannister’s accomplishment that can be applied to leadership and education — 1) fostering a belief that something is impossible, 2) believing it is possible, and 3) proving it is possible.
Too many times we convince ourselves things are impossible. We listen to what “the experts” say, we convince ourselves that they must be right, and the impossible stays just that way- impossible. The more we tell ourselves it cannot be done, the more distance we end up placing between the possibility and the achievement. We see this same struggle in some of the kids we teach and perhaps some of the people with whom we work. Kids tell themselves they cannot overcome their personal struggles or they have no way to get out of their current circumstances. When this is coupled with adults who say “these kids are apathetic,” “these kids are not smart enough to accomplish that, “ or “kids these days won’t…” We ensure that those possibilities stay impossible.
Hopefully, reading the last few sentences in the prior paragraph upset you. Some people solely live in the world of impossible, where they believe they have no control over life events. While we all visit there every once in a while, most of us live in a state of believing all things are possible for ourselves, or children, and our students. It is said that Bannister spent an intense amount of time visualizing his mile run, each breath, each step, each lap, until he finished the race in under four minutes. I am fortunate to work with, and be friends with, educators who are great cheerleaders for our students. They are encouragers who help students to believe they can achieve more. They instill a belief in possibilities.
The last step (and maybe the most challenging) is proving it is possible. In the service of others, you often have to step up and “Roger Bannister” things that seem impossible. A key in serving others is GOING FIRST. Do you really think something really dramatically changed in mile training, or with the physical limits of the human body, after Bannister finally cracked the four minute mark? No, Bannister simply paved the way by proving the impossible was possible. Once we know it can be done, once we see someone go first, it is no longer impossible. That once far off idea is now tangible. Instead of telling ourselves, “don’t even try, it isn’t going to happen,” we shift our thinking to, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
If we foster a belief that things are impossible, we flounder and so do the people we lead. Changing our mindset to believing the impossible is possible can help others believe as well. It can give those we lead the confidence to try, or to take a risk. But, if we prove something is possible, others follow. Others will start to make the impossible, possible as well. This is why as educators, as leaders, as people who impact futures, we must GO FIRST. We must not just say it can probably be done, we must prove it can be done – be so certain it is possible that others believe the same and follow. When you have a clarity of purpose and when you live every moment in the state of certainty that you will achieve your goals, you not only influence yourself into making the undoable doable, you make others believe it is possible as well.
Where do you need a little certainty in your life? What do you need to move out of the impossible category? Whatever it is, do not just believe it can happen, go make it happen. Do not wait…GO FIRST!