This happened to me a few years back. It was my eight-year-old nephew’s annual school sports meet [I call him Kit; he calls me Mama]. And the apt ‘grand’ final afternoon event was a classic seven member 350 metre relay race. There were five teams pitted against each other – three mean looking teams from the sixth grade, one more hooliganish clearly over-aged team from the fifth grade, and the last one, my bespectacled nephew’s motley ‘we-were-better-off-in-the-shade’ three-foot tall team from the fourth grade. I realised right away that their chance of winning was worse than what the term ‘impossible’ could have defined; but still, I was all for cheering them like crazy! Come on, they seemed truly excited, and winning wasn’t everything, was it!? Yeah, right, till the time dear Kit, balancing his spectacles on his nose, ambled over confidently to me and shoved a relay-race baton into my hand, with the quasi-order, “Come fast Mama, the seventh member has to be a guardian, and he has to run first!”
The ten seconds of silence that followed, with me looking perplexed, was a lifetime. Me?!! A relay-race runner?!?! The sun was burning down hotter than in a western movie; I could smell the sweat running down the back of my head into my spine. Worse, the cannibal competitors seemed all set to massacre the ‘fourth’ graders. No way could I be humiliated like this in public. Neither was I fit, nor was I on the right side of 30! And my team’s incompetence was more evident than the burning dust on the track. I shoved the baton rudely back into Kit’s hands, ordered him to find somebody else, and shouted, “Anyway, what difference can I make in a team born to come last?” I felt the words hit him like a ton of bricks. His expression changed from eager enthusiasm to sudden disappointment... For a moment, I regretted my words... But then, seriously, can an individual really make a difference? Especially when the team, for the lack of a better word, sucks?
O. E. Graves was born way back in 1811, on a farm near Vermont, to a family in perennial financial trouble. Afflicted with poor health throughout his life, he moved to New York and worked as a mechanic in a railway workshop, where he understood the concept of railway safety brakes. Graves kept wondering why couldn’t such brakes be used in elevators [which had already been invented]. His mechanic teammates kept dissuading him for his inane idea, trying to convince him that elevator lines were practically unbreakable. Despite all negative opinion, Graves conviction grew in his idea and in the belief that he individually could make the change. After years of struggle, and more of financial pecuniary, he invented the first elevator safety brake. In 1853, Otis Elisha Graves founded the world’s first ‘safety’ elevator company, today the world’s largest elevator company.
This man struggled to handle his doomed-from-the-start shoe business for many years. His invention was neither a product or a service. He invented a ‘process’ called General Electric! Neither is he Jack Welch, nor is he Thomas Edison [the founder, on paper at least]. His name is Charles Coffin, the man who convinced Edison that rather than simply having a ‘GE’, the company should depend less on individuals and more on self-replicating processes. Coffin understood that world-class companies can succeed over a long term only if the concept of innovation is not restricted to singular people and only when top performing people find their replacement, and in hordes. Edison made him the first President of General Electric. Renowned management expert Jim Collins quotes, “While Edison was essentially a genius with a thousand helpers, Coffin created a machine that created a succession of giants.” Today, the long dead and gone Coffin is rated by Fortune as Number 1 in the list of Ten Greatest CEOs of All Times!
This man used to see Star Trek like nobody’s business. He was so enamoured by Captain Kirk’s “Scotty, beam me up!” calls that he decided to find out how to invent such a phone. Despite everybody dissuading him [because of the unbelievably high costs involved], this general manager in a tiny electrical company kept working on the concept. On April 3, 1973, from a Manhattan street corner, using an apparatus that had no wires attached, he rang up Joel Engel, Head, Bell Labs research, to tell him, “Joel, I’ve beaten you in the race to make the first mobile phone.” Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone, individually re-invented not only Motorola’s history, where he worked, but of global telecom.
It is the night of September 25, 2000. This promising 23 year old Boston basketball player, who is a draft member of the ‘NBA bench’, is stabbed ruthlessly by hooligans. Medical reports show 11 lethal injuries to the back, face and neck, enough to kill any man. Doctors work relentlessly through the night to save him. Just when they’ve given up, a do-or-die lung surgery unbelievably gets him breathing again. The man lives, but just... Devastated physically, the chances of his coming back are, like I mentioned before, worse than impossible. Eight years pass. It’s June 17, 2008. The judgement night of NBA Finals history. Banknorth Garden in Boston is more than jam packed. The totally unfancied Boston Celtics, who have never won the NBA Finals in the last 22 years, are playing against the second highest winners in history, Los Angeles Lakers [featuring legends like Kobe Bryant, coaches like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar]. The game finally ends. Lowly Boston Celtics have beaten LA Lakers by a margin of 131-92, the largest margin ever in a championship game. The captain of Boston Celtics is an unknown Paul Anthony Pierce. This is his first NBA Finals appearance in life. Though he scores only 10 points, he is surprisingly named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NBA Finals, because of the openings he creates... Oh yes, they also comment that he’s the same guy who was stabbed many times eight years back...
I call all these singular people The League of Incognito Mafiosi. We never knew their names, yet they kept working, steadfast in their beliefs, never giving up in the power of their individual self... Kit was still standing there, not letting his three foot persona stoop in front of me, his face grim, yet not stoic. He hadn’t moved an inch. I knew Kit had been practising with his friends for a long time for this race. But I had no idea that the reason he had invited me so fervently to attend the finals was to make me participate as the lead runner! And he had even promised his team members I would be there. The sun seemed to be mercilessly burning my face. The heat was unbearable. The silence, more than that. Kit kept standing there, not moving, and I wasn’t sure but I thought I saw his eyes turning moist, when he looked at me totally teary eyed, and commented in halting words, “Mama, you can make a difference. We don’t have anybody else... and I believe in you.” [The baton felt too heavy when I ran the lap; oh yes, we lost the race; ...and we won too; Kit made sure we didn’t come last; he was our MVP! And this time, I’m practising with them for the next year... An individual does make a heaven of a difference... Kit was that individual... Yes, ‘I’ believe!