The sad news of the passing of Roger Bannister, the first human being to run a four-minute mile, got me thinking about his legacy — not just as one of the great athletes of the past century, but as an innovator, a change agent, and an icon of success. As it turns out, when he broke through a previously impenetrable track-and-field barrier, he taught all of us what it takes to break new ground.
Most people know the basic story of Roger Bannister, who, on May 6, 1954, busted through the four-minute barrier with a time of three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths of a second. But it was not until I decided to write about him for my book Practically Radical, and read a remarkable account of his exploits by the British journalist and runner John Bryant, that I understood the story behind the story — and the lessons it holds for leaders who want to bust through barriers in their fields. Bryant reminds us that runners had been chasing the goal seriously since at least 1886, and that the challenge involved the most brilliant coaches and gifted athletes in North America, Europe, and Australia. “For years milers had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them,” he notes. “It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. And like an unconquerable mountain, the closer it was approached, the more daunting it seemed.”
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