Tag Archives: life

Roger Bannister – Making the Impossible Possible

There are certain names, achievements and events that just simply are.  Neil Armstrong,  first man to walk on the moon.  The Wright Brothers, the first to fly.  Roger Bannister, broke the 4 minute mile barrier.  In these stories of great achievement, of individuals doing what moments before seemed impossible, come great lessons.  Roger Bannister died Saturday.  Though he will forever be remembered for breaking the 4 minute barrier, it is the lessons he shared that I found myself reflecting on this weekend.

Once the impossible is made possible, it becomes common.  History is riddled with things once thought impossible.  Flight, going to the moon, running a sub 4 minute mile.  All examples of things that could never be done.  While they might not be entirely common, they are certainly not impossible, and short of the moon, not even news worthy.  If one believes something is impossible, it will never happen.  But if one accepts that something is possible, they are on the path to achievement.

Amazing achievement demands sacrifice.  So much goes into that simple sentence, but breaking the 4 minute mile barrier is a story of sacrifice and pain.  It hurts to run fast.  Any runner suffers, but running fast for any amount of distance really, really hurts.  The mental fortitude to endure such self-inflicted pain is the true strength of a runner.  Running at an elite, world-class level, is a monastic existence.  Roger Bannister sacrificed in all other aspects of his life to achieve his goal.  Things thought impossible are not made possible without unfathomable sacrifice.

Focus and Commitment.  It was the most amazing part of the entire Roger Bannister story…he was going to medical school when he broke the 4 minute barrier!  It was the era of “Amateur Athletics” – one could not profit from athletics; it was unseemly.  Roger Bannister was in medical school, would train over his lunch hour (an hour to change, run, cool down, shower and change – an hour), and then occasionally run at meets strictly for the competition and only when his academic schedule allowed.  There were no endorsements, no shoe contracts, no government programs or athletic assistance.  He had to cover his own costs, buy his own shoes, sharpen his own spikes, all of it.  He had to focus and commit to the goal, then do everything required to achieve his goal.

Nothing is ever done alone.  The track optimizes individual effort.  It is the runner, on the track, against the clock.  Yet in his efforts to break the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister had help.  He had a coach and trainer, he had teammates and mentors, and on that fateful day he had pacers.  There literally were men who went before him, breaking the wind, setting the stage for his final lap push to finish in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.  Nothing, even the most solitary of endeavors, is every done entirely alone.

Competition.  Having rivals.  Being pushed.  Having someone to chase, someone nipping at your heels.  It matters.  Roger Bannister was not the only person chasing the 4 minute mile.  The rivalry with American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy was en epic contest.  They all were running in the 4:02 range and were desperate to be the one who broke the barrier.  They each pushed the other, chipping away, gradually going just a bit faster, training a touch harder, honing their craft and demanding more from the others just by competing.  Just as it was a “space race” to the moon, so it was with Bannister, Santee and Landy, and so it is with each of us who compete.  Thank the competition, they make you better.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb was the book that introduced me to the full story of the 4 Minute Mile.  Like most everyone, I knew Roger Bannister broke the barrier, but knowing what it took, how it was done, the rivalry with Landy and Santee, the worldwide quest to do it, the mental and physical barriers.  That book sets atop one of my book shelves for a reason.  It is that good and taught me so much.  Sir Roger Bannister made the impossible absolutely common.  Yet when asked, he holds his work in medical research as his greatest personal achievement.  That last part is what makes the loss of Roger Bannister so great and the lessons his quest illustrates all the more telling.  He was a regular, and by all accounts, a good guy, who repeatedly did amazing things.  He achieved because he believed, he sacrificed, was focused and committed, had and accepted help, and embraced the competition.

You know, all the things any of us can do.

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The Example – The Garage Guy

Never assume.  Like all cliches, it is all too true.

Originally it was “Pride, Professionalism and the Shoe Shine Guy“.  Those special, random few who teach us so very much about life and business.  Sure, there are the obvious role models and examples, the speakers, the leaders of industry, the thought leaders everyone has heard, but then there are the folks that are right there, living the day-to-day grind, that are possibly the greatest teachers.  Several years back there was “The Shoe Shine Guy”, and now to that special list I am proud to add “The Parking Garage Guy”.

We all have known those folks, we see them almost every working day, year after year, toiling away in anonymity.  Sometimes we are fortunate enough to slowly build a bit of a passing relationship, a morning greeting, a smile, holiday wishes, and maybe even a quick chat from time-to-time.  And then every so often, a little nugget of information slips out that slowly starts to reveal there is a special person sitting in that security booth.  It took years, and finally his sharing that he was retiring at 81 (stunning…would have maybe guessed 65…maybe) to finally bring the entire story, all the lessons, into sharp focus.

To know Amha is to know a true professional.  He was always present.  He took pride in his work.  He ran a tight ship.  He knew who was where, in what car, where the good spots were, who might need a different spot and why.  That garage was his domain, and nothing got by him.  He was sharp, smart, respectful, polite, kind, but also no nonsense.  It took a couple years to realize what was there every morning, the lessons that were being shared.

Amha is the classic American story.  He came to this country almost 20 years ago from a “rougher” part of the world.  I knew the neighborhood he and his family had left, I suspected why, and it was sort of our “secret”.   I had traveled in those parts of the world in the early 90’s – it was not a good area or time.  Always liked to think that he enjoyed the fact that there was someone here that just knew “where there was”.  The other day as he shared the news of his retirement, he also shared more of the story.  He confessed that after not being well received here as an engineer in his early 60’s who wanted to work, he elected to not just ride out his years on the couch.  He chose to become a parking garage attendant.  An Electrical Engineer who had already had an incredible career, was a man of means in another part of the world, willfully and apparently happily, took on a thankless, anonymous job.  It all clicked into place when he shared the full story.

Professionalism and pride do not stem from a title.  They are not contingent upon a level of authority, a scope of responsibility, the number of people led, the industry, the company name, level of education, or even the actual work.  Everything and anything can be a profession.  Being a professional is a state of mind, it is entirely our choice.  Pride and professionalism comes from within and it is absolutely our responsibility to carry ourselves as such in all facets of life and business.

Pride and professional do not preclude being nice.  That was the real lesson that did not fully register until yesterday.  Genuine kindness.  Doing the little something extra for someone.  A greeting.  A smile.  Being present.  Lending a hand without being asked.  But above all, referring to someone as “my friend”.  It seems so obvious, but it is so often forgotten.  You see both the Shoe Shine Guy and the Garage Guy – they were nice people.  They were good people.  They work hard, they take pride in their work; their profession.  But they glowed, absolutely glowed, when they spoke of their family and friends.

And with the kindness, the pride and professionalism, went gratitude.  Being grateful for the opportunity to work, the place you live, the opportunity to help others, to build relationships, to be a friend.  We owe it to ourselves, our families, our friends, to our clients and our co-workers, and to the Garage and Shoe Shine folks, to try just a bit harder, to be just a touch more professional, kind and grateful.

 

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The “Too Valuable” Fallacy

“To every thing there is a season” or so said Pete Seeger and the Byrds, or the Book of Ecclesiastics in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on one’s preference.  And in keeping with the ends of the personal preference paradigm, Fox News has shared a classic business lesson.  No, not “those” kinds of lessons.  This is one of those timeless lessons of business, of life, of organizations and leadership.  Ford did it with Lee Iacocca.  The 49ers traded Montana and the Colts let Peyton go to Denver.  The Today Show let Katie go, ESPN has lost almost everyone, and even MJ and the Bulls came to an end.  And every company in history has parted ways with their top sales person.  Eventually, there comes a time when those “too valuable” are simply not that valuable.

Fox News as an organization has demonstrated that maxim that “no one person is more valuable than the overall organization”.  Everything else about Fox News aside, there is no denying, they have put the good of the organization above some of the most “valuable” personalities in the infotainment industry.  For various reasons, which we will not discuss or debate, Fox News has parted ways with two hugely successful personalities in Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly.  Vastly different scenarios, but the fundamental truth remains:  the organization was placed ahead of the individuals.

It is quite easy to fall into the leadership trap that the team, the organization, the business, the company, cannot survive without the “top performer”.  While it is true that great talents, performers, sales people, operations leaders, analysts, skilled craftsman, or the uncounted millions of committed team members are all special, there are some that just seem to have more of an impact.  They apparently are the one generating the lion’s share of the revenue, that are the driving force in innovation and change, that are the glue that holds the team together, that are simply “too valuable”.  Yet eventually, there comes a time.

It was a key component of military life, no one is indispensable; the mission and the team come before the individual…no matter whom it might be.  The same holds in sports, entertainment, and business.  Sure, those special “stars” can have an enormous impact, but the Bulls remained relevant without MJ, the Broncos have won after Elway (thanks Peyton), the Today Show is back on top, ESPN marches on, and Ford has continued to build cars.  And the country carries on regardless of who is in which office.  In fact, quite often organizations and individuals flourish after the split.  “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” as the lyric or verse reminds us.

It is challenging for leaders to take the long view when the decision is at hand, but while the temptation is there to make “just one exception” for that great talent; to retain and profit from that special person a little longer, let Fox News and Bill O’Reilly pass through your mind.  He was a ratings and revenue goldmine for the network, and while his particular scenario made for a relatively easy decision, most are more of the Megan Kelly variety – tough calls, but in the end no one is indispensable.  Ever.

 

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Anonymous, Random Acts of Kindness

We have all read the stories, the tab paid by some stranger.  The super tip left behind.  However, it is the small ones that sometimes go unreported that can make all the difference.  This morning was one of those times you stumble upon one of those small things that just might make a difference…

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There were a dozen odd chalk messages scrolled on the neighborhood sidewalks.

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Some were whimsical and quite cliche, and others were straight to the point.

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But all were positive and uplifting, they brought a smile to your face, but above all were simply “just there” for everyone to read.

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The real beauty is that we will never really know who did it, and we are all better for it, the not knowing.  An all too aware adult or an innocent child?  It does not matter.  It is the message that matters, and I for one am better for it.

A thanks is owed to someone, and whomever they are, please know I am grateful and the message has been passed.

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Change and the “Too Long” Syndrome

Clichés*.  Though it is in vogue to see clichés as “silly”, I for one have always found them refreshing.  In our politically correct world, clichés are actually one of the few ways we are allowed to tell the truth without fear of offending.  “Change is never easy” is a classic, and it is one we hear and use frequently in our business.  Changing jobs, roles and careers.  Relocating.  Changes in family status, economic status, relationship status, or a host of other areas, change is, as the saying goes, “never easy”. Clichés exist because they are true.

Have had the good fortune to reconnect with quite a few old friends, long time business partners, and just a lot of folks who I had not seen in a while. Just been one of those months. And as always happens, the conversation always turns to the classic “how have things been” question.  Typically there is a “since…” lingering at the end of that question.  Since the move, since starting the new job, since whatever life event.  Not always, but certainly more often than not, the conversation ultimately includes the phrase “too long”.  It is absolutely amazing, the majority of the time, once the change has come, folks wish it had happened earlier.

Started jotting down some of the phrases we hear quite often when it comes to change:

– “I waited too long”

– “should have done it x years earlier”

– “I stayed too long”

– “it was long overdue”

– “so much happier”

– “was so comfortable with what I knew”

– “never realized how unhappy”

– “grown complacent”

– “in such a better place”

– “so much better off”

Change is never easy.  It is the question of unknowns, of “what ifs”, of starting over, of friction, of uncertainty, of “walking away from a good thing”, of “the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know”.  It is scary.  It is emotionally draining.  It is challenging.  It is often physically hard.  It might be financially costly.  Change can come by choice, or it can be forced on you.  It can be expected or totally unexpected.  Regardless of what it is, how it comes, what it entails, or otherwise involves, it is never easy.

It is always great to see old friends, to renew old acquaintances, to just enjoy the company of others.  But it is absolutely reassuring to know that much more often than any of us realize, change brings about good.  New opportunities, new relationships, renewed purpose, energy and yes even fun.  It is cliché, but change is not something to fear, rather it is something to be embraced.  Easier said than done, but it has been nice to have that reminder.

* not sure the final count, but I know I used a lot…

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Pride, Professionalism and the Shoe Shine Guy

It really is amazing what we can learn from the people around us. From those close to us, those who teach, mentor and mold us. From family and friends, associates and co-workers, supervisors and subordinates, peers and colleagues. And yes, sometimes from those random strangers who briefly pass through our life and leave us better for the time and wisdom they shared.  Met a guy the other day who did just that…it was 15 minutes of wisdom and the reminder of fundamentals I needed to hear.

Though I am a pretty loyal DIY sort, one thing on which I do splurge is a shoe shine.  If there are two things I took from my Naval Service, it is a strong aversion to cruise ships and a healthy bias against shining my own dress shoes.  I do shine my shoes, but I know a professional blows away my feeble skills.  While between meetings, I spied the shoe shine stand and decided to stroll by.  I was a potential customer, but I was not necessarily going specifically to get a shine.  I would see what happened.

What happened was I got one heck of a shoe shine and one hell of a reminder of what really matters in business and in life.  All this from a 15 minute chat with the shoe shine guy.  What seemed to be general banter was really great insight and wisdom.

Here are a few things the shoe shine guy taught me about business:

1 – Ask for the Business.  He asked for my business.  He saw me in a suit, with shoes that needed attention.  I was a potential client.  He made the pitch.  Business 101…cannot make a sale without asking the question.

1A – Identify the need…to the client.  He saw my shoes needed attention and he pointed it out to me.  Did I want to hear the message – no.  I did however need to hear the message.  I had a deficiency that needed addressed.

2 – The initial “no” might not be the final answer.  He acknowledged my decline of service, but then he politely reminded me again that in fact I had a need that should be addressed.  No one likes to hear bad news, but sometimes we have to hear it.

3 – Close the deal.  Gaining interest is not closing the deal.  He ensured I did not slip away.  He quickly and skillfully built what we had rapidly established:  an identified need and the prospects acknowledgement that the need requied action.  He then gained my committment to buy.

4 – Service after the sale.  Not only did he do good work, he did it with pride and enthusiasm.  He made me feel special, as if I was the only reason his business existed.

Then there were the Life Lessons courtesy of the shoe shine guy:

1 – The Little Things Matter.  It is the little things that set us apart.  They are the differentiator.

2 – Attention to Detail…it tells you a lot about a person.

3 – Take Care of Things…they last longer.

4 – Appearances Matter.  It is not about being attractive, it is about wearing clean clothes, brushing your teeth, combing your hair and yes, shining your shoes.

5 – Values.  People will spend hundreds if not thousands on suits and ties, time pieces and jewelry yet will not take the time to polish their shoes?  As the man said, “what are they thinking?  If I notice it, what do their clients think?  Their boss?”  Guy was right.

I failed to get the gentleman’s name, but I will never forget him.  What really stuck with me is that he was not particularly old.  Actually he was 34, married with a young daughter.  He was clearly proud of his family and is striving to provide for them on a material level.  Shining shoes is a tough way to make a go of things.  Especially so in a city like Chicago.  However tight it might be for them on the material front, I am absolutely positive his family has an abundance of wisdom, pride and love.

Though he taught me so much, it was the fundamentals that really linger.  Strip all the above away, and the man was nice, warm and engaging.  On the business front, he was a professional.  He took pride in his work and he treated his craft, his clients and himself with respect and dignity.  I saw a ton of business people around me those two days in Chicago, most of whom I am sure are making much more than the guy at the shoe shine stand.  However, precious few were as polished and professional, or took the pride in their work, as the guy working the shoe shine stand at the Palmer House.

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No “Rest of the Story” Needed

It was the voice. For many that grew up in certain times and in certain areas, it is unmistakable. And at some point after the “power outage” but before the end of the game, I was stopped dead in my tracks as I was walking out of the room so I could watch a commercial.  It was all because I heard that voice.  However it was the message that made us all stop and think.

I grew up on Paul Harvey, 4H, FFA and the family farm culture of the Midwest. For me radio consisted of classic rock, Jack Buck calling Cardinal games and Paul Harvey doing his folksy news thing.  We would laugh at our parents for listening to “those stations”, yet you could not walk away when he was doing the news.  There was just something special there that worked…even for a kid.  Dodge tapped into that yesterday, and it was brilliant.

It was an interesting contrast, the personalities and characteristics of the celebrities, entertainers and athletes the entire event provided, and the message of that one simple commercial.  Actually it was nothing more than an edited speech from the late 1970’s layered over still photos.   All the flash and hype, hip vibe and cutting edge technology came to a halt for two minutes…it was an amazing contrast.

There really is nothing to expand upon. The message stands alone. That is the best example there is really…just a timeless message of fundamental behaviours and core character traits, delivered in a classic, timeless style.  No flashy production, no actors or celebrities, nothing but a message of values and traits.  Great reminder and brilliant marketing.

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