In her 2001 bestseller Seabiscuit, author Laura Hillenbrand introduced readers to an underdog story about the horse who came out of nowhere to become a legend. Seabiscuit, a small horse so broken that owners had considered euthanizing him, stood only 15 hands high. This smallish mud-colored animal with forelegs that didn’t straighten all the way, had an inauspicious start to his racing career, winning only one fourth of his first 40 races. Yet, he became an unlikely champion and a symbol of hope to many Americans during the Great Depression.
Seabiscuit out-ran the 1937 Triple-Crown winner, and fans voted him American Horse of the Year for 1938. He went on to become one of the most electrifying and popular attractions in sports history and the single biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini! The little horse became the top money-winning racehorse up to the 1940s. His success came as a surprise to the racing establishment, which had written off the crooked-legged racehorse with the sad tail and tale.
Three men with disruptive mindsets changed the damaged horse and the course of horse-racing history. With hindsight, we might also consider Seabiscuit’s whole team of people— the jockey, the owner, the trainer— damaged in one way or another, too.
Through their dogged determination and against all odds, these three men disrupted themselves into winners. A down-and-out nation saw this horse and his rider as a symbol of what a team could accomplish through grit, spirit, and unorthodox training methods. Over four years, these unlikely partners survived a phenomenal run of bad luck to transform Seabiscuit from a pathetic glue-factory candidate into an American sports icon.
Nine years after the success with Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand wrote another bestseller Unbroken. She recounted, on a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Force bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood—and leaving a young lieutenant, Louis Zamperini, the plane’s bombardier, stranded in a life raft. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
Zamperini survived the crash of the plane, but ahead lay thousands of miles of hostile ocean, deadly sharks, thirst, hunger, enemy aircraft, and eventual incarceration in a Japanese POW camp. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini answered desperation with ingenuity. He suffered with hope and faced brutality with rebellion.
Hillenbrand chose Zamperini as the topic for her bestseller for much the same reason she chose Seabiscuit for her previous book: they exemplify exceptional performance in the face of adversity—something that proves impossible if one cannot or will not tolerate ambiguity.We can link the willingness to tolerate ambiguity with the will to overcome adversity to begin a successful next chapter. Click To Tweet
When ambiguity shows up with adversity, they impose themselves without invitation. In these situations, we can link the willingness to tolerate ambiguity with the will to overcome adversity to begin a successful next chapter. Seabiscuit recounts the story of the transformative power of effort—the power of determination to change situations and outcomes. Unbroken and Hillenbrand’s biography tell similar stories. Filtered through a stagnant mindset, these represent nice accounts of people playing the cards they were dealt. Looking at them through a lens of disruption, however, we see people deciding to re-shuffle the deck, even though they have no way of knowing what the new cards will bring. We see people going beyond tolerating ambiguity to embracing it.
During my more than 40 years of studying leadership, I have found leaders make what I call The Five Typical Wrong Turns that usually explain why they did not welcome ambiguity and change:
- A focus on process over results
- A preference for popularity over respect
- A penchant for perfection, not success
- Choosing quick fixes over goal accomplishment
- Seeking harmony at the expense of problem-solving
Each of these wrong turns involves a decision or a series of decisions that takes the leader and others in the organization down the wrong paths. These paths won’t always be roads to perdition, but leaders who stay on them too often or too much find they have ended up where they never intended to go.