There’s moxie, and then there’s Evel Knievel-level moxie.
What’s the difference? Moxie jumps on a motorcycle, pops a wheelie and launches off a ramp with the throttle wide open.
Evel Knievel-level moxie does the same, but clears a wall of flame, seven school buses, a shark and a box of snakes somewhere between the ramp and the landing.
If you lived through the 60s and 70s, chances are pretty good that Evel Knievel was one of your heroes. The flamboyant motorcycle stuntman from Montana seemed to be everywhere during those decades. With his leather jumpsuit and swept-back pompadour hairstyle, Knievel embodied the spirit of the age, tackling ever-more extravagant and dangerous stunts to the thrill of live and televised audiences.
His reach and influence were so impressive that five of the top twenty ABC Wide World of Sports most-watched sports moments of all time are his, including the top spot.
As a child, I, too, was enthralled by Evel’s feats. Looking back now as one fascinated by leadership, I appreciate Evel even more. Here’s why:
He was a master storyteller. Evel was as much a marketer and showman as a daredevil. He wove a compelling narrative that resonated deeply with a wide swath of Americans. He created a picture of a fierce, fearless master of the motorcycle ready to take on the biggest, baddest challenges. At the same time, he preached an anti-drug message, and advocated strongly for the use of motorcycle helmets.
Knievel instinctively understood and embodied a uniquely American persona. He was both a rebel and a role model. He relentlessly marketed his brand, and his image and name have adorned countless products for the past several decades. His name became synonymous with risk-taking.
Leaders understand that they are really telling a story with every aspect of their lives. Leadership is not simply about performing a stunt, or creating a product, or about producing a widget. Leadership is about capturing the imagination of those around you, and engaging them in ideas bigger than themselves.
Evel was fearless? Not really. It would be easy to interpret Evel’s pursuit of bigger, badder, bolder stunts as fearlessness. But he was not without fear. In one of his last interviews he said, “You’d have to be an ass not to be scared.”
The difference between Evel and most of us was that he mastered his fear. He placed it in perspective. He recognized what he could control, and what he couldn’t. He embraced that risk was part of achieving great things.
Evel mastered failure. Evel was as famous for his spectacular crashes as he was for sticking the landing. A quick and dirty tallying of his successful stunt verses his failures reveals that somewhere around 13 percent of his attempts ended in bone-shattering spills.
But for Evel, even those crashes were a success. The crashes drew as much or even more attention than the successful landings, ensuring an even bigger audience for subsequent attempts. Fans followed his recovery from crashes avidly, and legends grew around the number of bones he had broken.
Evel’s goal wasn’t only to successfully perform a stunt; it was to create a powerful show that people wanted to see. From that perspective, the failures were simply another part of the narrative, another plot device.
Leaders place failure in perspective, and understand that failure – even difficult, painful, spectacular failure – is part of their story. They also understand that how they recover from a failure is as compelling and important as how they succeed.
Evel kept his word. Once an idea was on the runway, Evel was committed to following through. He was fanatical about following through with what he said he would do, even if the outcome looked uncertain for him.
Leaders act with integrity, and once they are in, they are all in.
I’m always on the hunt for more stories of leaders and leadership to explore. Who inspires you? Share in the comments.