The greatest lesson we can learn from the achievement of Roger Bannister, who broke the 4-minute mile in 1954 and who died at 88 yesterday, arises from someone else breaking his record only seven weeks later. And then many times since.
Because as great as his physical feat, it shows that his mental feat was as great.
Seven weeks isn't enough time for others to change training, strategy, diet, and so on. They already had the physical ability to break four minutes.
Once he showed them they could, they did.
That's leadership: to show people what they can do and enable them to do it.
What we can learn from Bannister
We can learn plenty from him. To our community of leaders, entrepreneurs, and people who take initiative and responsibility, I suggest the greatest lesson we can learn from him is how to learn to overcome our internal barriers.
Do you think you can't
- Start a project?
- Finish a project?
- Lead a team to triumph?
- Get promoted faster?
- Sell more to more satisfied customers?
- Change fields?
Bannister's feat, followed by many others following suit, shows us that if someone else can, so can you. Bannister was no more or less human than the more-than-1,000 men (and high school boys) who matched or beat his feat.
Or the countless men before him who could have beaten the time but didn't.
Running may require some physical luck, but rarely do such requirements exist in business. Warren Buffet's success hardly depends on his physical self.
Bannister himself narrates his run in the video below. Note how much he talks about emotions, feelings, and motivation as compared to his physical experience.
By the way, the picture at the top of this article shows Bannister coming in 4th place in a race before he set the record. His disappointment at his result motivated him to prepare for the historic sub-4-minute mile.
How to learn from Bannister
As I wrote in What Does LeBron James Know About Leadership?, "Athletes learn and practice leadership. They get elected. We can learn from them." As the Harvard Political Review stated in Sports vs. Education: A False Choice,
Contrary to cultural undercurrents, sports participation and academic success are not mutually exclusive. The education attainable through sports can be incredibly valuable in other arenas of life.
Unlike traditional classroom learning with lectures, case studies, and analytical papers, or common practices of watching TED talks and reading books, athletes learn by practicing, rehearsing, and doing.
Want to improve at a behavioral activity? Whatever it is, you'll improve through practice, rehearsal, iteration, and other forms of active doing more than passive reading and writing. Reading and writing won't hurt, but if they take time from practicing, they'll keep you from your potential.
In Bannister's words:
The real secret is that I've worked hard.