Leadership: Three ways to start "daring the impossible and achieving the extraordinary"

Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker wrote that there is no substitute for leadership. Real leadership is far more than manipulating people to do what you want. Real leadership alone can make the difference between success and failure in anything you do for yourself or in any group you are in. Extraordinary leaders dare the impossible and as a result they achieve the extraordinary. Things that average leaders would have never thought possible, extraordinary leaders do every day. Daring the unthinkable and achieving greatness aptly describes Drucker’s concept of leadership for any organization.

The Man Who Did the Impossible Three Times

You probably haven’t heard the name Professor Richard Roberto. I didn’t hear much about him, and I was on his home turf of California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) at the time that he was an engineering professor. Roberto was also the chief faculty advisor to students who competed in a special competition to design, build, and race a university solar car.

Do you believe the impossible is possible?

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 original 1600 mile Sunrayce—spanning from Orlando, Florida to Warren, Michigan.

CSULA has a relatively small engineering school with some smart students, but it doesn’t necessarily collect the high quant geniuses found in some of the top engineering schools. Rather, it has one of the highest percentages of students who are the first in their family to go to college, most with very modest family incomes. Since CSULA was competing with some top graduate schools both in California and nationally, everyone knew the team had virtually no chance of winning. However, as Drucker frequently said, "What everybody knows is usually wrong."

The Surprising Results

Amazingly, the CSULA students 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, Solar Eagle II. This time, the CSULA team came in third in a race from Dallas, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Again, CSULA beat out much better funded, better researched cars 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 had the money and facilities, and they had alumni volunteers from top engineering firms. They had everything. How could this possibly happen?

When the upstart Americans won the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, it ended the American Revolution and won our independence from England, all from beating the number one rated, wealthiest, and most experienced army in the world.

Dumbfounded, British commander General Cornwallis instructed the English Band to play a tune called "The World Turned Upside Down" at the surrender ceremonies to the ragtag Americans. That’s just how these prestige engineering schools felt.

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, 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 again in California. 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.

The Los Angeles Times quoted CSULA spokeswoman Carol Selkin saying, "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 leader 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, and Berkeley had huge numbers of engineering students and many graduate students. The students at CSULA hadn’t even received 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 wanted careers in engineering compared to a national average of more than 7 %.

"How did you do it?" I wanted to know. Roberto told me that the secret was reliability. "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 Roberto retired before the next race. CSULA never won another race. In fact, CSULA never entered another race. Perhaps they couldn’t find another leader like Professor Roberto who would dare the impossible and achieve the extraordinary.

You Can Lead Before You Are Made a Paid Supervisor of Any Kind

There are numerous situations in which leaders are required, and in every one you can dare the impossible, whether it is organizing a company picnic, coaching a volleyball team, or being in charge of an annual savings bond drive. Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, started as a volunteer. She was so good that she was promoted to paid positions and finally to CEO.

The Girl Scouts had been on a continual decline for many years. She did such a job against impossible odds that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush. A friend of Peter Drucker, she founded what eventually became the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute to promote nonprofit leadership following Drucker’s concepts. She accepted the first Chair of Leadership at West Point and I am proud to say that she sits on the advisory board of my nonprofit graduate university.

Daring the Impossible Requires Preparation

Mary Kay Ash started with only $5000 to build the billion dollar Mary Kay Cosmetics corporation. She hired her first group of saleswomen and planned on living on her husband’s paycheck until she started making money. Two weeks before she was going to open her doors, her husband died of a heart attack. Experts told her that her situation was impossible and advised her to quit before she even started. She didn’t. She had learned how to dare the impossible as a child.

When she was only three years old, her father was invalided with tuberculosis and couldn’t take care of himself. Her mother went to work to support the family. Mary Kay accepted the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking, and caring for her father. She ran the household during the day. She made Drucker’s decision to be the kind of leader who dared the impossible before she even knew what leadership was. The lessons she learned developed a self-confidence to disregard the well-intentioned — but bad — advice that friends and experts sometimes give so freely. She persevered, achieved success, and built a billion dollar corporation in an age when women were supposed to stay at home and not compete in the business world.

If you haven’t yet made the decision to dare the impossible, you can develop this trait by:

  • Building your self-confidence by always raising your hand to offer your leadership
  • Providing assistance to others when they are in need, even if they are competitors at work
  • Giving encouragement and inspiration to everyone, especially when failure rears its unwanted presence

Do these three things and you will develop into the kind of leaders who Drucker saw were necessary to attain the extraordinary results that he knew were possible.