What breaking the 4-minute mile taught us
The sad news of the passing of Roger Bannister, the first human to run a four-minute mile, got me thinking about his legacy, not just as one of the great athletes of the past century, but as an innovator, a change agent and an icon of success.
Most people know the basic story of Bannister, who, on May 6, 1954, busted through the four-minute barrier with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. But it was not until I decided to write about him, and read a remarkable account of his exploits by the British journalist and runner John Bryant, that I understood the story behind the story. Bryant reminds us that runners had been chasing the goal seriously since at least 1886, and that the challenge involved the most brilliant coaches and gifted athletes in North America, Europe and Australia. “It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one,” he notes. “And like an unconquerable mountain, the closer it was approached, the more daunting it seemed.”
So the four-minute barrier stood for decades, and when it fell, the circumstances defied the confident predictions of the best minds in the sport. The experts believed they knew the precise conditions under which the mark would fall. But Bannister did it on a cold day, on a wet track, at a small meet in Oxford, England, before a crowd of just a few thousand people.
Just 46 days after Bannister’s feat, John Landy, an Australian runner, broke the barrier again, with a time of 3 minutes 58 seconds. Then, just a year later, three runners broke the four-minute barrier in a single race. Over the last half-century, more than a thousand runners have conquered a barrier that had once been considered hopelessly out of reach.
Well, what goes for runners goes for leaders running organizations. In business, progress does not move in straight lines. Whether it’s an executive, an entrepreneur or a technologist, some innovator changes the game, and that which was thought to be unreachable becomes a benchmark. That’s Bannister’s true legacy and a lesson for all of us who see the role of leadership as doing things that haven’t been done before.
In other words, great leaders don’t just outperform their rivals. They transform the sense of what’s possible in their fields.
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