The Eponymous Principles of Management : The Bannister Effect

It is Only Impossible, Until It’s Possible

It was thought to be impossible to run a mile in under four minutes, until Roger Bannister did it at, in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, on a windy spring day at Oxford on May 6, 1954.[1] Two months later, he raced his great rival John Landy of Australia and won that race, with both men going under four minutes, and within three years 16 runners had gone under the barrier. The current mile world record holders are Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco with a time of 3:43.13, and Sifan Hassan of The Netherlands with the women’s record of 4:12.33.

One would find similarities with the debate whether Alexander Graham Bell should be credited with the invention of (harmonic) phone or should it be Antonio Meucci and Eisha Gray. The Wright brothers failed attempt to fly their aircraft first time on December 14, 1903. Since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing scaled the Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, many expeditions have subsequently made up to that coveted peak. Now when private journeys into the outer space have becoming a reality, more than six decades after the historic flight on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin is widely celebrated in Russian space museums, with numerous artifacts, busts and statues displayed in his honour. On July 29, 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the spacecraft Apollo 8 and proclaimed: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (› Play Audio). But we do not remember that he said at the subsequent press conference that this feat was possible because of the hundreds of peoples’ toils.

All others who repeated these feats have done far better than these first timers. But we remember these first timers, only. Because these and several such first-ever events have changed the perception of human race what it can achieve.

There is a school of thought which believes that once there is a proof that something can be done, it induces the belief that it can be done. Another school of thought who analysed Bannister’s approach proposes that the belief comes before the proof.

We have a system in our bodies called the reticular activating system (RAS) that helps our brains decide what information to focus on and what to delete.

With a clearly defined purpose, a mission, and with living every moment in a state of certainty that you’ll achieve it, you influence what your RAS filters out and what lights it up.  As a result, you pay special attention things that help you achieve what you’re after, things you otherwise would have never noticed.

Below are three select quotes in bold text from Bannister with corresponding  analysis based upon what we know about the energy universe 105 years after Einstein’s relativity theory exposed it.

  • “We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves.”

The heart is a powerful energy centre that drives human beings to perform almost unimaginable acts of bravery, resilience and ingenuity. It also releases hormones as needed.

  • “Without the concentration of the mind and the will, performance would not result.”

Pure consciousness is the state of awareness without any thought processes at all. It is the coveted stage of meditation within the eternal mindfulness of now.

The most courageous quote from Bannister, perhaps is:

  • “No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.”

The energy vibrations of nature were likely coherent with his own, leading to a complementary energy waveform of greater amplitude or power. This additive strength is commonly witnessed when matching ripples on a pond combine into larger waveforms. Some definitions of samadhi are noted as union with divine power.[2]

One of the best explanations for this phenomenon is the theory of self-efficacy developed by the renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura. According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is defined as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.”

The self-efficacy theory suggests that individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to take the most action towards their goals, persist in the face of adversity and push the barriers of what they believe is possible. They are also more likely to tap into states of flow that improve mental and physical performance.

In short, the key difference between individuals with low versus high self-efficacy, is that the latter has a growth mindset whilst the former has a fixed mindset. Followers wait for leaders to show them what’s possible. Leaders break the barriers of what’s possible.[3]

It’s about mind over matter, stepping outside your comfort zone and overcoming mental barriers. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, so move out of it. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.

Elbert Hubbard wrote:  The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.

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The story of Dr. Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile has a simple lesson for business and life. That lesson is that what others believe to be our abilities and limitations has absolutely no bearing on how high we can take ourselves. What does matter ultimately (and primarily), however, is what we believe to be our abilities and limitations….. that for us to be as successful as we can be, the starting point is that we simply need to BELIEVE.[4]

In other words, 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, something for others to shoot for. That’s Roger Bannister’s true legacy and lesson for all of us who see the role of leadership as doing things that haven’t been done before.

In fact, two Wharton School professors have analyzed the lessons for business of the four-minute mile. In their book, The Power of Impossible Thinking, Yoram Wind and Colin Crook devote an entire chapter to an assessment of Bannister’s feat and emphasize the mindset behind it rather than the physical achievement. How is it, they wonder, that so many runners smashed the four-minute barrier after Bannister became the first to do it. What changed was the mental model. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the four-minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw that they could do something they had previously thought impossible.”

Most thinking about strategy, competition, and leadership emphasizes the intricacies of business models: revenues, costs, niches, leverage. But mental models are what allow organizations and their leaders to try not just to be the best at what everyone else can do, but to do things that only they can do — which, over time, shows others what it possible. They don’t accept the limitations, trade-offs, and middle-of-the-road sensibilities that define conventional wisdom. In other words, great leaders don’t just out-perform their rivals. They transform the sense of what’s possible in their fields.

That’s what makes icons like Roger Bannister so unforgettable — and so important[5] (to those who feel afflicted by Peter Principle syndrome or The Impostor Syndrome and the likes… .)

[1] Bannister Landy Miracle Mile 1954

[2] Anticipation and the Bannister Effect

[3] The 4-minute mile: Why some people achieve the impossible and others don’t

[4] The Powerful Lesson of 3:59.4

[5] What Breaking the 4-Minute Mile Taught Us About the Limits of Conventional ThinkingBill Taylor