I just finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Best Seller Unbroken, which was released on this past Christmas Day and has been generating positive reviews and award nominations. Unbroken shares the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, a man who triumphed through unbelievable adversity, especially when he served in World War II. Zamperini’s life story is so incredible, it made me think hard about the type of person he was. Whenever he was faced with a challenge, he overcame it. He was successful, by any definition. It dawned on me that his approach to life is similar to an engaged employee’s approach to work. While it may seem like a stretch comparison, Zamperini was a “can do” person, just like many people you may see around your office. This attitude, drive, and ultimately, success, is the result of many factors:
Zamperini’s story begins with his transition from being a juvenile delinquent in Torrence, California to becoming one of the best runners in the world. One of the keys to Zamperini’s success was the mentorship provided by his brother Pete, who not only encouraged Louis to take up track and dedicate himself to it, but encouraged him to set higher goals, like running in the Olympic Games, and how to commit to continuous improvement. When proposed with this challenge, Louis found the motivation he had lacked in the past. Someone pushed him, and he rose to the challenge.
Interestingly parallel, all of the best-in-class companies I have worked with over the years encouraged both meaningful mentorship and continuous improvement. In both personal and professional worlds, it helps when someone takes a genuine interest in us, and pushes us to see what we can accomplish.
A Positive Disposition
Despite Zamperini’s athletic success, he was drafted in World War II. His B-24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean, leaving him clinging to a small raft for weeks. He barely sustained himself on albatross, fish, and rainwater, while sharks constantly hovered near. Despite the horrible circumstances, he remained positive that he would eventually be rescued or reach land. Just as he hoped, the raft finally drifted to shore. Unfortunately, he was in Japan, and he became a prisoner of war. The conditions at these POW camps were nothing short of horrific. Of the 27,000 POWs interned in these camps, 40% died. (By comparison, only 1% of the POWs in German camps perished.) Zamperini was nearly starved to death while imprisoned, at one point weighing only 67 pounds. He recounted what it was like to see himself that way, saying “All I see is a dead body breathing.”
Zamperini leveraged the love of his family as a bedrock of strength during his capture. Interviewed by Tom Brokaw before his death in July of this year, Zamperini explained how he survived his POW internment. “I am a positive person. No matter what the situation is, I work hard to be content. I work hard to handle it. I learned hard to handle it.”
While I don’t mean to compare the work environment to a prison camp (that would be an entirely different sort of blog post!), I was struck by Zamperini’s fortitude. The professional world can be incredibly difficult at times, and uncertainty can make people feel vulnerable and anxious. But engaged employees manage to maintain a positive outlook, and it serves them well.
While Zamperini was in Japan, I wonder whether he ever heard one of my favorite phrases, “Gambate Kudasai,” which figuratively means “good luck,” but literally means “persevere.” Indeed, Zamperini steadfastly persevered in the face of calamity and barbaric war crimes.
The level of courage Zamperini exhibited throughout his life is a model for sustaining engagement in both work and life. In fact, Angelina Jolie, who is directing the soon-to-be-released movie, credits her relationship with Zamperini as the reason behind one of her a major life choices. She recently made the bold decision to have a double-mastectomy in order to proactively save her own life from the genetic threat of cancer. Jolie boldly made this courageous decision very public in a New York Times Op Ed piece. Later dubbed “The Angelina Effect,” the publicity is credited for a huge rise in preemptive genetic testing and for saving thousands of women’s lives.
When you act courageously, it inspires others to follow suit. You never know how one decision will positively impact those around you.
For much of his life, Zamperini leveraged the art of having fun, another key to building world-class engagement. Whether he was playing pranks on friends or joking around, Zamperini never took himself too seriously. He actually took up skateboarding in his 70s and had fun doing it until he was 80 years old. When he first spoke with Hillendbrand, who also wrote the New York Times Best Seller Seabiscuit, he said “I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit, because I can talk.”
Sometimes having fun is seen as the opposite of being productive, but it’s actually closely tied to productivity and engagement. Top companies are increasingly making fun a priority within their culture.
Given that the number one driver of employee engagement is recognition, it is very fitting that two of Zamperini’s last acts were showing Hillenbrand and Jolie how he felt about them. He gave Hillenbrand one of his Purple Hearts, and he gave Jolie a gold track shoe charm he won from a race in 1940, which she now wears on a necklace. Recognizing both Hillenbrand and Jolie in such a unique way truly made a difference in their relationships. Both women knew Zamperini appreciated their hard work because he showed how much it meant to him. When he gave Hillenbrand his Purple Heart, he sent a note to her that said, “You deserve this more than I do.” Hillenbrand remarked, “He’s very wrong about that, but his gesture moved me beyond words.”
The same concept about recognition holds true in the workplace. Engaged employees are more likely to show appreciation for their team members, and do so in an authentic way. This positivity spreads, and helps to further engage others.
In the end, Unbroken is about eschewing victimhood and embracing forgiveness. Zamperini was finally able to completely forgive his former captors. Japan also forgave itself for what happened in the war, and graciously invited Zamperini to carry the torch in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano. Having let go of what was once seething anger, Zamperini was able to thoroughly enjoy the smiling and heartfelt faces of the thousands of Japanese people who lined the way as he ran with the torch.
Having a positive work (and life) experience is often about rising above challenges, and the people who challenge you. Instead of focusing on the negatives, you can become a happier person by focusing on the positives, and all of the great things still in store for you.
I am excited to see the movie Unbroken, and highly recommend the book. Zamperini is a true inspiration, and we can all learn a little something from his life story.
Kevin Sheridan has spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant and Keynote Speaker. He has helped some of the world’s largest corporations break down detrimental processes and rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors in the process. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, is consistently recognized as a long overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement, and his most recent book, “Building a Magnetic Culture,” made the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today best-seller lists. You can reach Kevin through his website, on Twitter, or LinkedIn.