IF YOU DARE THE IMPOSSIBLE YOU CAN ACHIEVE THE EXTRAORDINARY*
March 2018 | William A. Cohen, PhD, Major General, USAF, Ret.
Drucker wrote about what could be done under difficult or impossible conditions and that included just about everything. His list of extraordinary leaders started in ancient times. His favorite book on leadership was Xenophon’s Anabasis. Xenophon was a Greek historian. Anabasis was written 2300 years ago. But before he turned to writing history, Xenophon was a Greek general elected by soldiers after all their generals had been tricked into coming to a party weaponless and killed by their Persian hosts. The job Xenophon was elected to perform was to lead 10,000 Greeks soldiers, outnumbered, and in hostile territory over a thousand miles from the interior of Babylon to the coast of the Black Sea. This was a true “mission impossible.” Against all odds Xenophon accomplished this successfully.
Drucker’s Favorite Leaders Dared the Impossible
Coming forward into modern times Drucker’s favorite leaders included legendary CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. who increased GE’s revenues by $130 billion over his tenure as CEO; Frances Hesselbein who became CEO of the Girl Scouts at its nadir, turned the organization completely around and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush, and Rick Warren who founded the fastest growing church in America, the Saddleback Church. From 200 people at church services Warren built it to 20,000 and it became the 8th largest church in the U.S.
Extraordinary leaders dare the impossible and because of their daring they achieve the extraordinary. Challenges that average leaders would have never thought possible to achieve, they do every day. Dare the impossible and achieve the extraordinary aptly describes Drucker’s concept of success for any organization.
Two Miracles on Ice
For the first time in 20 years, the U.S. Women’s Hockey team won Gold this year. It was the Second Miracle on Ice for the U.S. In the Winter Olympics of 1980, the Soviet team was the certain favorite. It had won every world championship and Olympic tournament since 1954 and the Gold Medal, in the previous four Olympics. Its team was led by legendary players. The American team wasn’t even a close comparison. It only had one returning player from the previous Olympic team. While Soviet team had the time and resources to get and stay in top form, the American team was made up of a mix of amateur and collegiate players only recently selected. They barely knew one another. Due to a school rivalry there was even some hostility on the American team. To get this team to win anything looked impossible. Nevertheless, much to everyone’s surprise, if not outright shock, the American Coach, Herb Brooks, brought the team together, dared the impossible, and achieved the extraordinary. This team defeated all international competitors and went on to both defeat the unbeatable Soviet team and to win the Olympic Gold Medal much as the Women’s team this year won over the Canadians.
Creating the Impossible Three Times
You probably haven’t heard the name Richard Roberto. I hadn’t heard much about him, and I was on his home turf of California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) at the time. Professor Roberto was an engineering professor. Roberto was also the chief faculty advisor to students who competed in a special competition. This competition concerned the designing, building, and racing of a solar car.
In 1990, with no prior experience in solar vehicle technology, his students, mostly undergraduates, designed and built the CSULA’s first solar-powered electric car and entered the 1600 mile original Sunrayce from Orlando, Florida to Warren, Michigan. CSULA had a small engineering school. It had some smart students, but it didn’t have the engineering geniuses frequently found in the top schools. Rather, it had one of the highest percentages of students who are first in their family to go to college, most with very modest family incomes. Since CSULA was competing against really top graduate schools both in California and nationally, everyone knew it had virtually no chance of winning. However, as Drucker frequently said, “what everybody knows is usually wrong.”
The First Year’s Surprising Results
Amazingly, the first year of competition, the CSULA team came in fourth place nationally. But CSULA did more. It accomplished the extraordinary. It was number one in California, besting such well known schools as the University of California and Stanford University.
A fluke? Maybe. Except that in 1993, they held the second national solar race with new designs, new cars, and mostly new students. CSULA did the same thing all over again with a new car, but the same coach. This time, the CSULA team came in third nationally racing from Dallas, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Again, CSULA beat out much better funded, much better researched, university competitors to finish number one among other top tier California universities in the race. Experts at the top schools in California were floored. They had the top students, they also had the resources in money, facilities, and alumni volunteers from top engineering firms. They had everything. How could this possibly happen?
Four years later, Roberto’s students built Solar Eagle III to enter Sunrayce 97. This time CSULA raced from Indianapolis, Indiana to Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was 1250 miles, and it took nine days and the competition was stiffer than ever before. There were 36 top-flight entries such as MIT, Yale, and even my own alma mater, West Point, the first engineering school in the country. In California things were even tougher. Combined teams from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley vowed to overwhelm this state-school upstart.
Would CSULA prevail again in California? The Stanford/UC Berkeley teams came in third and second among California teams. But, CSULA was number one in California again. There were also some interesting national results. MIT came in second nationally. But CSULA was first in the country. Roberto had dared the impossible three times, and not only succeeded every time, but crowned it all by winning the national award number one.
The Los Angeles Times quoted CSULA spokeswoman, Carol Selkin. “In the past, the winners were big-name schools with four-year research institutions and big money. We’re a state university with no research arm. These other schools had people clamoring to support their team, doctors and lawyers. We just didn’t have that.”
What CSULA had was a coach by the name of Richard Roberto. In interviewing Professor Roberto, I discovered something that didn’t come out in much of the press coverage. Ninety percent of Roberto’s students on the solar team were undergraduates. Their competitors, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley . . . in engineering had mostly graduate students and money from eager donors. The students at CSULA didn’t even receive academic credit for their work. Many had to work part time jobs just to go to school. “About fifty percent of the students have family incomes of less than $20,000,” Roberto told me. And only about 5% of CSULA students even wanted careers in engineering.
“How did you do it?” I wanted to know. Roberto told me that the secret.. “Our car just didn’t break down, not once,” he said.
But I knew there was more. At first, he was evasive. Finally, he told me his secret. “I’m like an unknown basketball coach,” he said. “And that suits me fine. It is how it should be for the good of the team. The press wants to talk to our winning players, our drivers, those who had their hands on building the car. I stay in the background. Outsiders don’t need to know me or know my name. The less I am in the forefront, the better for the team. This way, our team members get the publicity, and they get the jobs offers. They work hard for it, and they deserve it. I always refer questions to the students or to public relations. I’m proud to be their coach.” Professor Roberto was a leader who rejoices in the successes of those he leads. Unfortunately for CSULA, Professor Robert retired before the next race. CSULA never won another race. In fact, CSULA never entered another race. Either someone was afraid that CSULA would always win and they quit holding the race. Or perhaps they just couldn’t find another leader like Professor Roberto who would dare the impossible to achieve the extraordinary.
* Adapted from the book Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen to be published by LID in 2018.
A Class with Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2008).
Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management by William A. Cohen (Jossey Bass,2010)
The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World's Greatest Management Thinker by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2013)
Peter Drucker on Consulting: How to Apply Drucker’s Principles for Business Success by William A. Cohen (LID, 2016)
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William A. Cohen, PhD
Major General, USAF , Ret., President