10 Lessons on Leadership from Seabiscuit

I recently finished listening to the unabridged audio-version of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. seabiscuit A biography about a famous racehorse, the story also centers on the lives of three men whom Seabiscuit involves in a network of drama, suspense, defeat, and triumph.

Not only was the story mesmerizing, but also it contained many life lessons for leaders or anyone interested in personal growth or improvement for their team, school, or organization.

Here are ten lessons I pulled from the story:

1. People accomplish amazing feats when they are unified around a common cause.
Seabiscuit’s owner Charles Howard, a wealthy entrepreneur, the trainer Tom Smith, a lonely cowboy from the plains, and jockey Red Pollard, a former-boxer-turned-rider couldn’t have been more different in background, upbringing and temperament.

When their paths crossed directly on a horse Smith chose on a whim, these men became a band of brothers who each played a part in the horse’s success. Lesson: You may be surrounded by people on who bring different strengths or weaknesses to the table. But when you are unified around a common vision, you can accomplish the unbelievable.

2. Sometimes your most unlikely prospects can become your greatest assets.
Seabiscuit did not appear the sleek racehorse. Jockey Red Pollard had a similar path to Seabiscuit. Overworked and malnourished, he was unemployed as a jockey when he happened on the horse right after he had been bought by Howard. Likewise, Smith, the silent cowboy trainer, saw the kindred spirits in Pollard and Seabiscuit.

These relatively unknown characters surprised the world with their racehorse who could out-run others by lengths. Lesson: Hard work, grit, creativity, and perseverance always reap more benefits than giving into negative perceptions or predictions.

3. Success requires risk.
Of course the sport of racing is always a gamble. But any grand achievement almost always requires some risk. For Howard, Smith, and Pollard, this meant calculated risk. They knew the best conditions in which Seabiscuit could run.

They carefully trained him for races based on those conditions, and they sometimes accepted conditions that were unfavorable. Lesson: When you know your environment, your strengths and weaknesses, and where your greatest returns may occur, then you can make calculated risks that may lead to great victories.

4. Loyalty and trust are the hallmark of winning teams.
There were times when Smith the trainer knew Seabiscuit should not run. The owner Howard had to learn to trust his trainer’s instinct. When he didn’t, tragedy usually followed.

Howard had the same instinct for knowing how to work publicity to his horse’s favor, and Smith knew that Howard, as owner, was ultimately in control. Pollard understood the ride of the horse better than anyone. Lesson: As you learn and rely on the strengths of those around you, rest in your roles, and trust one another’s instincts, you develop into a winning team.

5. Believing and acting on dreams separates fantasy from reality.
Victory always follows action. And action is the result of imaginiation, creativity, planning, and execution. As Howard’s team dreamed of winning, they took all the right steps to train well, to practice wisely, and to compete with cleverness. Seabiscuit embodied the same competiveness by nature. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to dream. As long as you follow dreams with wise action, you are poised for turning ideas into accomplishments.

6. Publicity is a great tool for motivating support for your cause.
Seabiscuit became a national sensation not only because he was a winner but also because Howard befriended the press, let them participate in his successes, and allowed enough distance between them and his racehorse to keep them hungry for more.
Lesson: Publicity is a great way to celebrate success and allow others to celebrate with you. It often opens the door to other opportunities.

7. Losing battles doesn’t mean you have lost the war.
Seabiscuit was not without his grueling defeats. Jockey Red Pollard experienced so many injuries, he had to be replaced more than once while he recovered. Seabiscuit knew the pain of being outrun, the agony of injury, and the difficult path of rehabilitation. But the team was able to keep their eye on the ultimate goal of reaching the next level. Lesson: Defeat does not ultimately equal the end. It is a natural result of trying, risking, and reaching for new levels.

8. Sometimes your greatest defeats become your greatest opportunities.
It is likely Seabiscuit would have never achieved as much as he did had he won in some of his earliest big races. The lessons learned through defeat taught his team how to re-train toward Seabiscuit’s strengths. Lesson: Open doors often result directly after a seeming defeat. Don’t forget to look for the opportunities that rise from being knocked down.

9. Success is contagious.
As one of the most famous athletes in the world, Seabiscuit became the emblem of underdog hero for the American audience. He was greeted by thousands as he traveled cross country via train. Tens of thousands overwhelmed stadiums to see him run. Millions flocked around radios to hear of his racing progress. Lesson: Success breeds success. Remember to celebrate the small victories; they tend to lead to the larger ones.

10. Legacies are built over time, not just in one moment.
The nation’s love for Seabiscuit did not happen over night. Unlike most racehorses, Seabiscuit had many years of racing before retirement. He epitomized the same struggle for survival that many of his Great Depression fans felt during trying times. When the horse was retired, people still came to visit to take photos and they followed the races of his offspring. Lesson: A good name endures much longer if its possessor shows long-term reliability and dependability. No flash-in-the-pan winner builds a legacy as strong as a consistent one.

Seabiscuit was not only an amazing horse. He also connected the lives of unlikely individuals into a cohesive force of unified vision and execution–a team willing to take risks, to trust one another, to act on their dreams, to rally others to their support, to turn losses into opportunities, to celebrate their successes, and to build a legacy.

As you start this new school year or take on your next big adventure, don’t forget the lessons you can learn from history–even the ones from a racehorse. Let’s rally our students and teams around a unified commitment to blaze new paths together.

What are some of your favorite books or true stories that yield lessons for leadership? In what ways can you learn to value the differences among your own team members in order to unify around a common goal?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker