The Fosbury flop and creative leadership: Rewrite the rules


Most companies and organisations operate within a market or field where things by tradition are always made in a certain way and the business is therefore governed by the unwritten rules of that area. By following these unwritten established rules, you have to compete with all the others on the market and can only succeed by constantly becoming a bit better, a bit cheaper, a bit more effective.

An alternative is to see if the rules can be rewritten, and thus completely change the conditions for working within that area. If you’ll succeed, there is suddenly a window of opportunity to establish yourself as a market leader before the competitors catch up.

In the mid-1960s, the American high jumper Dick Fosbury was a mediocre athlete, and definitely not someone fighting for the medal positions in the higher elite. At the beginning of the 20th century there were rules in high jump that the legs should cross the bar first, but after this rule was removed in 1936, the straddle technique with the stomach first gradually replaced the previous scissors style. In 1964, Russians Valeriy Brumel won the Olympic Gold Medal and set an Olympic record at a height of 2.18 m using the straddle technique

At that time, Fosbury was in his High School high jump team. He made good results with the scissor style, but his coach tried to persuade him to switch to the straddle technique to become something more than mediocre.

But the straddle style was not for him, and his personal best remained at 1.63 m. It looked like he had reached the end of the road. But Fosbury did not want to give up. He persuaded the coach to let him go back to the scissor style and tried to squeeze himself by lifting his hips and pushing his shoulders back. This made something happen. The more he stretched his back first over the rib, the higher he came and at the next training he managed to beat his person-best by 15 cm. Over the next two years, he developed his own style and became better and better, but most bystanders regarded the jump, which was now becoming known as the Fosbury flop, as a joke.

In 1966, he had received a sports scholarship to Oregon State University. His new coach, Berny Wagner, was skeptical when he saw him, but decided to first film the strange jump before judging it. He put the rib at 198 cm and let the camera roll. When latter reviewing the film, it showed that Fosbury had sailed over with a good 15 cm margin, and Wagner was convinced that here was a jumper with potential.

Ranked only 61st in the world, Fosbury managed to make the US team for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with the lowest possible margin and was not considered a medal hope. Prior to the contests, he visited the Aztec pyramids in Teotihuacan, camped outside and drank beer and missed the opening ceremony. When the high jump competition began on October 20, at the low height of 2.0 m, the crowd began to laugh at Fosbury’s strange style, but as the bar was raised, the audience turned side and began to cheer him.

With the adrenaline pumping and a total focus he managed 2.20 m along with Ed Caruthers also from the US and the Russian Valentin Gavrilov. At 2.22 m, the Russian fell out with three missed jumps. Fosbury had so far missed one single jump while Caruthers had failed five times at different heights. The bar was now set at 2.24 m, an Olympic record height. Both Caruthers and Fosbury missed their first two jumps. It was now Fosbury’s turn. He waited his maximum allowable two minutes, pumped his hands and bounced towards the bar, threw himself up in the air and slid over. Caruther failed again and the Olympic gold medal had gone to Dick Fosbury.

Dick Fosbury did not remain in the absolute high jump elite, and other jumpers have since made heights that were previously regarded as unthinkable (Javier Sotomayor’s current world record is at 2.45 m). But Dick Fosbury has his name forever engraved in sports history as the one who had the ability and dared to challenge earlier norms to see his sport from another point of view.

Successful newcomers, almost always appear by changing the rules, not by doing as things have always been done before. Some other examples of this are.

  • In the 1950s, young Ingvar Kamprad, with a background in the mail order industry, ran a small furniture company in the small village Älmhult. An employee one day came up with the idea of ​​unscrewing the legs of the table Lövet to more easily send it to the customers in a flat package. The IKEA concept was born, and today the company is the world’s largest in its kind with 135,000 employees in 45 countries.
  • Pysslingen started in 1984 as the first privately run kindergarten in Sweden. Although initially opposed by strong legislation (Lex Pysslingen), the business continued to grow and eventually the legislation was changed. Today, Pysslingen runs 120 private kindergartens and 55 elementary schools.
  • That same year, 18-year-old Michael Dell succeeded in breaking into the very competitive US computer market by offering cheap customised computers by prepayment mail order.
  • The Swedish media mogul Jan Stenbeck, started in 1987 to broadcast commercial TV from London via satellite to circumvent the Swedish television monopoly.
  • The young Finn Linus Torvalds, created in 1991 Linux, a new computer operating system that instead of closed patents is based on a fully open source where anyone who wants can help improve the system
  • Pelle Andersson and three friends were in 1992 reflecting whether there were alternative ways to make newspapers. Three years later, the first edition of the free newspaper Metro was printed. Today, Metro is daily read by 18 million people in 23 countries and 15 languages.
  • Low cost airlines could suddenly take over a significant part of the airline market by departing from airports outside of cities with lower fees, allowing customers to book themselves over the Internet instead of expensive agencies, reduce service onboard and invest in fewer aircraft types in their fleets.

Tip: You can try to use the same concept within your own area. Start by writing down as long a list as possible on any unwritten rules that apply to your business. Then go through the points one by one and try to think if there are any limitations that can be broken creatively. Among the possible changes, the seeds for the most promising innovations could often be found among the odd and different ideas.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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