Underdog was an animated television series that debuted on NBC in 1964 when I was still a kid. It featured an anthropomorphic dog whose job as an “humble and loveable” Shoeshine Boy masked his true identity, the superhero Underdog.
Summoned to the rescue of his beloved Sweet Polly Purebred, Shoeshine Boy would step into the nearest phone booth and be transformed into his all-powerful alter ego. Speaking in rhyming couplets, Underdog would arrive on the scene and announce, “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”
As I write this post, another type of “underdog” is preparing to play on the world’s largest stage, Super Bowl LII. The Philadelphia Eagles football team has been an underdog in every NFL playoff game during this post season. In this case, underdog is not some caped crusader but rather “a competitor thought to have little chance of winning.”
Being an underdog can often be an advantage. Expectations are typically lower so success seems like a bonus. The underdog role often fuels a drive to work harder, perhaps with a chip on your shoulder, just to prove the naysayers are wrong. Being the little guy can garner more support since many of us identify with those who overcome odds or accomplish feats because of determination and courage.
Underdogs in leadership roles are successful because they practice some important principles.
- Service before self. If your vision of leadership includes aspirations to control, or be treated like a monarch, you can learn something from underdogs. Leadership is always about putting others first, about serving those who follow you. It’s about recognizing potential and seeking to help others to grow and learn.
- Learning is for a lifetime. Underdog leaders are often smart and accomplished in their field. What sets them apart is how open they are to listening and learning from others. They admit when they are wrong or don’t have an answer. Learning doesn’t end with some academic degree or title.
- The team comes first. Nothing kills spirit more than having the leader take all the credit for how well the team is performing. Underdog leaders foster a culture where everyone cares for each other enough to hold one another accountable, yet celebrate the corporate success of the team.
- Performance standards matter. Underdogs in sports, business, and life hold themselves to high standards. Just because others see them as under-qualified or ill-equipped doesn’t mean they are. Underdog leaders establish whatever structure and culture is necessary to achieve against the odds. Their discipline is often the defining difference when the goal or game is on the line.
The outcome of Super Bowl LII has yet to be determined. Will the underdog win? The Philadelphia region where I live certainly hopes so. They have embraced the Eagles and relish the idea that no one is expecting them to be champions.
The notion of underdog leadership, when practiced as described above, is appealing. Plus, it doesn’t require stepping into a phone booth and transforming into someone who seems bigger than life.