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As a Leader would you rather Flop or Fail?


1963, Medford, Oregon. A high school boy stands desolately on the sidelines as his competitors jump higher and the organisers raise the bar. Try as he might, he just can't seem to get his body and legs over the raised bar. He finally walks off dejected. 

The next day at practice, out of sheer desperation, he decides to change the way he approaches and executes the jump. He runs up at an angle, flips himself over with his back to the high jump pit, and sails cleanly over the bar, landing lightly on his neck and shoulder. His coach runs up to check that his ward has not broken his neck. Assured that he is all right, the coach then goes away to check the rule book and comes back to tell the young jumper that it is indeed legal, but it could be disallowed if he were to injure his neck.

The following week, young Dick Fosbury starts winning meets and medals, time and again sailing half-a-foot over his own previous bests. The local newspaper The Medford Mail-Tribune carries a photo caption, “Fosbury Flops Over the Bar,” after one of his school meets. The writer describes looking at Fosbury and thinking that his jump was like a fish flopping in a boat. The Fosbury Flop is born and will completely transform the future of the high jump for the next six decades and more. Years later Dick Fosbury says: 'It was alliterative. It was descriptive, and I liked the contradiction — a flop that could be a success.' 

And that is the real story of Dick Fosbury - his ability to re-imagine the horizon. It is often when failure appears inevitable, that dreamers like Fosbury make the greatest breakthroughs. When he decided to do the 'flop', Fosbury turned his back (literally) on millennia worth of human experience in jumping high. It was no easy decision. As Fosbury told The Guardian in 2012, 'I guess it did look kind of weird at first, but it felt so natural that, like all good ideas, you just wonder why no one had thought of it before me.' The truth is that few humans have it in them to re-imagine the horizon that confronts them. They are just differently wired. 

In 1968, five years after he performed the first 'flop', Fosbury arrived in Mexico City for his first (and as it would turn out, his only) Olympic Games. He attended neither the opening ceremony nor the press conference after he won Gold. He missed the first because he wanted to see the Aztec ruins, and the latter because Acapulco appeared a far more attractive proposition than meeting reporters at the venue. 

Between the two, adorned in a pair of mismatched Adidas (a white one with track spikes on the right foot and a blue one with a flat sole on his left), he swayed on his heels, rocking back and forth about forty times, fists clenched by his side, visualising clearing the bar in a 'perfect arc', then approached the bar in loopy strides and leaped backwards into the history books

Fosbury was not alone in being a dreamer. Leaders who have questioned existing paradigms and completely transformed the way a problem is approached have always made the greatest impact on their professions. 

Perhaps the most remarkable man in that respect, was Thomas Edison. Home schooled because he daydreamed in class, Edison, who would come to be known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, would go on to hold 1093 patents in his lifetime. He once famously remarked: 'If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.' 

Henry Ford left Edison's firm, started the Henry Ford Company, made the affordable family car a reality, taking away millions of passengers from horse drawn carriages and the railroad, and with his Model T, over the next two decades, changed our lives for the foreseeable future. Arguably, hundreds of thousands more lives would have been lost in the First World War, but for ambulances whose Model T chassis and spare parts were supplied by Ford. 

A hundred years later, it was the turn of two computer science graduate students at Stanford University to re-imagine the horizon and build a new engine for the modern world. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the Google search engine on Stanford's network, the action was destined to transform our digital future. Like all successes, google's incredible advances have been built on failures. So much so that the company celebrates its failures. But then it finds a way to flop to success. 

Last week the world bid goodbye to Dick Fosbury. But his mantra of not being afraid to flop to ascend the heights of success, will continue to inspire each and every one of us. Fosbury, Edison, Ford, Page and dreamers like them have changed the way we look at challenges, and their actions have transformed the world in ways even they didn't imagine. 

If there is only one question we need to ask ourselves when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem as leaders, whether our chosen domain is sports, science, or business, is would we rather flop or fail

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