Last updated on November 21st, 2023 at 06:32 pm

by Dr. Tim Glaid

man standing on a rock arms spread to the sky

“The Little Engine That Could” is an American folktale that became widely known after publication in 1930 by Platt & Munk. The story is often used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work.

“A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can”, puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

The Little Engine that Could, first published in 1930, with the authorship attributed to Watty Piper (a pseudonym), and with credit given to Mabel C. Bragg for the 1916 version The Pony Engine.


If I were to bet, I would wager on the fact that Roger Bannister was aware of the story of the Little Engine, because he became the epitome of believing, and of overcoming what many believed were impossible conditions.

On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, then 25, and a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.

About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.

It is important to understand that for as long as races were timed, including the Olympics and all other formal contests, no one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes. In fact, the experts (both medically and athletically) had declared it an impossibility. Thousands had tried, but all had failed. This negative belief did not stymy Roger Bannister’s confidence, beliefs, or attempts.

Bannister’s feat was trumpeted on front pages around the world. He had reached “one of man’s hitherto unattainable goals,” The New York Times declared. His name, like those of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Jesse Owens, became synonymous with singular athletic achievement.


After decades and centuries of men failing to break the four-minute mile, Roger Bannister’s record only lasted less than two months. Just 46 days later, 24-year-old John Landy, Bannister’s great rival from Australia, bettered the mark.

The Roger Bannister Effect: The Myth of the Psychological Breakthrough. The story goes that Bannister crushed the 4-minute mile mark, and allowed runners to dream of the impossible. No longer held back by this psychological barrier, swarms of runners went under the barrier.

Roger Bannister showed others that breaking the 4-minute mile barrier was not only possible, but it was a mindset. Through dedicated training and personal motivation, he changed the world and inspired others to do the same.

Up until 1954, it was thought to be impossible that anyone could run a mile quicker than four minutes. This was known as the 4-minute mile. Doctors, psychologists and even other expert runners assumed that the human body could not perform at that level – it was physically impossible. And these same naysayers believed it was crazy to even try.

Roger Bannister did though. In fact, he proved everyone wrong. Since 1954, thousands more have also been able to break the 4-minute mile … because one person showed them it was possible.
Bannister is a leader because of his influence upon others. Breaking the 4-minute mile did not make him a leader … influencing others did.


Influence is the difference between a transactional manager and a transformative leader. Transactional managers might get things done, but they do not inspire anyone else to join along or do it better. On the contrary, transformational leaders empower others to not only perform with more motivation and efficiency, but also constantly improve. People following a transformational leader also feel better about themselves and enjoy the ride.

Many of us know transactional managers in a leadership role. It is tough to work for them. Three out of four professionals self-reported in 2018 that their top daily stressor is their boss … ouch! Sounds like a quite many transactional bosses out there.

Leadership is a process, in which an individual motivates followers into action. The leader’s action could be intentional, or the motivation could be derived from some form of inspiration. For example, the follower may admire the cause and the purpose of the leader, and thus, seek to join in because of the compelling bond with those beliefs and intentions.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation arises from outside.

When one is intrinsically motivated, he or she is engaged in an activity solely because they enjoy it and get personal satisfaction from it.

Motivation is not just magic. It does not come in a bottle. Rather it should come from within. One is essentially who they create themself to be, and all that occurs in one’s life is the result of his or her own making.

Back to Bannister … he was not born with any type of silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in a working-class family who struggled to make ends meet. All he had was a passion for running. And he trained. Hard. Intensely. And there were times when he wanted to quit. But he refused to settle. He focused on his passion and envisioned the reality of living his dream. His running time kept getting better and better too. The more he trained, the quicker he became.

Two of my favorite Bannister quotes are, “Repetition is the mother of skill.” and “If you want to be good at something, practice. If you want to be great at something and master it, practice with passion.”

Roger Bannister not only raised the bar, but he also became the bar that inspired others to be better too.


So what about you … has anyone ever told you that you could not do something? Has anyone ever said that your goal was not possible? Perhaps you know someone who needs a bit more “belief” in themselves right now? Do not focus on reasons why you cannot do something. Instead, focus on reasons why you should.

Remember the story of Roger Bannister when someone doubts you or you doubt yourself. There is likely someone close to you who needs to hear this message too. Lead on!

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