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What’s Possible

“One of the redeeming things about being an athlete is redefining what is humanly possible.” — Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and repeat winner of the Tour de France I attended the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The event was marred by the murder of 11 Israelis, but it was also marked by some extraordinary achievements, including American swimmer Mark Spitz and his matching set of seven gold medals and world records, and the first captivating heroine from behind the iron curtain, gymnast Olga Korbut.

“One of the redeeming things about being an athlete is redefining what is humanly possible.” — Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and repeat winner of the Tour de France

I attended the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The event was marred by the murder of 11 Israelis, but it was also marked by some extraordinary achievements, including American swimmer Mark Spitz and his matching set of seven gold medals and world records, and the first captivating heroine from behind the iron curtain, gymnast Olga Korbut.

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I am not a fan of weight lifting. But that didn’t stop me from marveling at one Olympic athlete who surpassed the rest: Russian super-heavyweight weight lifter Vasili Alekseyev.

Alekseyev had earned all the honors Moscow could bestow, yet his wife remained nonchalant, even irreverent, about the accomplishments of this sensitive, gentle giant. She often expended more energy buttoning his jacket at award ceremonies than cheering for his accomplishments at weight-lifting competitions.

Alekseyev later returned to the 1976 Olympics after breaking his own world records for four grueling, exhilarating years. I had to question why he kept doing it.

“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” — Babe Ruth, baseball legend

I watched the 1976 Olympics in Montreal on television. One day, a reporter conducted a 10-minute interview with Alekseyev. He recounted the weight lifter’s world records and asked him why he continued to compete.

Alekseyev spoke in a manner that belied a man of his size. He talked of purpose and of testing man’s limits — of experiencing what he called “the white light” by lifting weights.

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He spoke of how he lives for a “moment’s moment” when he reaches a sense of perfection — a time of peace and harmony with himself, with others, with life itself. A moment of doing something no one thought possible.

“What we need are more people who specialize in the impossible.” — Theodore Roethke, poet

To the best of my recollection, Alekseyev told the reporter: “When I am ready to lift more weight than any man has ever lifted, I visualize the moment when my arms will lift straight into the air with the weight moving toward the sky. As I stand in front of all those people, we are together for that one moment. We all know that I have been able to do something that no one, not even myself, could do before.

“When I feel the weight rising and I know I will make it, I experience an instant of pure joy. Once I have lifted that weight, I am bathed in a sudden flash of white light. It comes from inside my brain, inside all of me, and sends through me a feeling of indescribable joy, of true contentment.

“I work hundreds of hours in the gym each month, hoping to have a chance to experience the sense of the impossible again — of that white light one more time. That wish fills me with happiness each day. It is my quiet. It is my peace. It is my knowing that I have a purpose in this world, today and for generations to come.”

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead, anthropologist

I have met many business leaders who have redefined what was possible — for themselves, for women in the workplace, for retirees, and for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. How did they do it?

How can we, like Alekseyev, help others — and ourselves — achieve what was once thought impossible? How can we realize that white-light euphoria? We can do so by developing three key attributes of great leaders.

Exhibit a High Level of Competence: Livelihoods Depend on It

“The best thing a leader can do for a great group is to allow its members to discover their own greatness.” — Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, leadership experts

“Competence” means more than any dictionary lets on. It’s not just lifting the weight. It’s not letting others down.

If you want to build a distinctive career, you should strive to accomplish your own goals, but you should also be able to provide an environment, support tools, and a career path that bring out the best in others. After all, your success will ultimately be tied to how well you help other people find their “white light.”

Lead With a Conscience: People Trust Leaders Who Serve the Truth

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“The concept of an individual with a conscience is one whose highest allegiance is to his fellow man.” — Ralph Nader, consumer activist

When people talk about how admired and effective Jack Welch is, they often refer to his reputation for “tough” love and for telling the truth no matter what. Whether he is making a report to Wall Street or reporting a mistake in strategy, you know that you will always get his version of the real story.

Furthermore, leaders with a conscience help their people understand their individual relevance not only to the organization’s future but also to society’s future. Leading with a conscience acknowledges that we all dream of noble purposes and that we want our work to affect more than just us.

Demonstrate Continual Commitment: Tell Me About Me and About Us

“Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” — Mother Ann Lee, founder of the American Shaker movement

Are you committed to being the best in the world and the best for the world? Successful leaders hold a covenant with those they touch. They understand what contributes to the greater good, and they communicate the factors that are important to the group. They never ask you for more than they are willing to give themselves.

When we look at those leaders, we often think of their sense of responsibility and their willingness to sacrifice for others. And we are drawn to them. We are motivated to do more than we thought humanly possible, so as not to disappoint them. In this way, we help each other become the people we always thought we could be and attain goals we once thought unattainable.

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“I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy … tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize … that I have three or four hundred other awards. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…. Say that I was a drum major for justice … for peace … for righteousness…. I just want to leave a committed life behind.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For more on Lance Armstrong, read his autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike. For more on Vasili Alekseyev, read ML2 E-Newsletter #30 or chapter four of Mark Albion’s New York Times best-selling book, Making a Life, Making a Living (2000), now also in paperback, e-book, audiocassette, and audio download.

Copyright © 2001 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

Read more columns by Mark Albion.