Keep an Eye on the Underdogs in your Business

When I hear the name Jim Valvano, I think of the term underdog.  What is an underdog?  Here is the description from Merriam-Webster:


  1. a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest
  2. a victim of injustice or persecution

History is full of stories about underdogs and the Valvano story crystallized for most of us when they squared off against Houston in the NCAA basketball championship in 1983.  The video below captures the final moments of this improbable win:

Most of those, in fact almost everyone, would have never predicted that NC State could have overcome the mighty Houston Cougars to win this game.  There were several key characteristics that carried the Wolfpack through to victory and many of these traits can be found in “underdogs” in your workplace.

Just what should you be looking for when you want to find those overlooked, but highly capable staff members who will do what it takes to exceed expectations?  Here are a few that I have identified:

  1. High levels of Motivation:  Underdogs will not be denied and they are motivated internally by a strong drive to succeed.  Many underdogs I know of and have met have this ability to push themselves when others might give up.

    Tony Kemp of the Houston Astros organization is another one of these underdogs who keep defying the predictions of the “experts” when it comes to success.

  2. Focus:  Underdogs have a highly developed level of focus and they don’t let anything get in their way.  The focus of an underdog is intense and it may even turn off others who don’t understand the internal motivation that leads to this highly developed, almost singular focus, to succeed.
  3. Perseverance:  Underdogs will continue to have hurdles thrown in front of them and they continue to find ways to go over, around or even under the barriers that others with more conventional thinking might put in front of them. Stephen Hawking is a brilliant theoretical physicist who has battled through ALS for many years.  I have known several people personally who have succumbed to ALS and the extent that this disease demoralizes and causes deterioration of almost every physical function in the body.  Hawking has pushed through this for years and his perseverance is amazing.
  4. Goal orientation:  This goal focus is similar to the focus listed above.  Many underdogs have very definable and measurable goals and they will continually revert back to what needs to happen next to ensure they reach their goals.  Rarely will they deter from their goal focus.

Most of us will discount and ignore underdogs, but they reside all around you. Many of them will finally gain your attention in the workplace by exhibiting the motivation, focus, perseverance and goal orientation I have listed above. When it comes to Talent Development, finding underdogs to lead and excel in a formal or informal program can be a great way to gain credibility and also instill interest on the part of many others.

Your role as a leader is to recognize who these individuals are and then find ways to enable and assist them in reaching their goals. Southwest Airlines is famous for adopting the strategy of “hiring for attitude and not for skill” and underdogs are the kings and queens of attitude with their four key attributes.

Which underdogs can you identify and assist in helping reach their goals today?