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5 Business Lessons from Louis Zamperini’s Unbroken

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, Unbroken, set aside a few hours this weekend, curl up on your couch to check it out. It’s not for children or the faint of heart, but this story of the potential of the human spirit is already a classic in my mind.

I had seen the movie before I listened to the audiobook last month, so I know there are deviations between the two. Still, I enjoyed them both.

As I watched the movie again this past month with my two boys, I considered how the story of Louis Zamperini’s survival after his WW2 bomber crash in the Pacific Ocean and his years of enduring inhumane treatment as a prisoner of war relate to strategic survival and enduring success in the nonprofit world. Here is what I identified:

  1. Act successful until you are successful. As a teen, Louis did not necessarily love running. His older brother saw potential in him, but Louis did not initially see the point of running. The movie shows how Louis went from training because that is was his brother told him he needed to do, to finding a love for the freedom and pleasure that running provided him.
    As organizations, we know that there are sometime tasks and responsibilities we find unpleasant but that we also understand are necessary for success. These may include fundraising, donor development, strategic planning, strategic plan reviews, marketing and more. Yet, as we get better at these tasks, they not only become more important to us, they often become more enjoyable because of the freedoms and the energies they provide our organization.
    There is no way around it. Until we ARE successful, we must ACT successful by doing what other successful nonprofits have done.
  2. Let your disadvantages motivate you: Louis grew up in a southern California town and culture before World War II when Italians could often be the target of prejudice and intolerance. The book, not surprisingly, gives a more complex account of this than the movie, but the movie still portrays how Louis used it as motivation. On the final lap of the mile run early in Louis’ high school track career, Louis was at the back of the pack. To help his brother find motivation, Louis’ older brother, Pete, yelled at Louis, using a epithet that the prejudiced would use to disparage Italians. Essentially, Pete was telling Louis not to let those win who regarded him as less of a person. Scene spoiler alert: Louis found the motivation to come back and win.
    Where do you find the motivation necessary to push yourself and your nonprofit to success? Have you felt negativity toward your organization from competitors, community members, customers or even former employees and volunteers? Remember, this organization is your baby, whether you birthed it as its founder or adopted it when you joined it staff or board. Don’t let anyone disparage your baby. Take advantage of every opportunity to prove such remarks false. This might involve putting in extra hours, consulting with experts or creating a more workable strategy to succeed. Just don’t let them win, you #@$%*& (insert whatever word would gall you the most).
  3. Endure: If you have read the book or seen the movie, endurance probably sticks out as the central theme. How could a person endure so much hardship and even hatred and come out of it with their life. While on the life raft, Louis and his pilot often talked about the foods they enjoyed from home. This may seem like torture, discussing delicious food without the hope of having any such meal at present, but it worked for them.
    If your organization has entered a difficult time, keep alive those memories of the good times you have had with past colleagues and clients. Remembering the joy and satisfaction from your previous service can provide the strength to endure difficult times.
    Organizational ValuesLater, in the work camps, Louis often through of family and home to keep up his hope. At times, though, his drive for survival focused on beating his nemesis (his torturer). Besides focusing on the positive relationships your organization has built, you can also focus on your nemesis to give you strength to endure. Are you fighting hunger? Homelessness? Poverty? Illness? Illiteracy? Whatever your organization stands for and against, keep that purpose alive in your staff and in your strategy. It can be a wonderful driver of success.
  4. Stand for something: In the middle of his horrendous ordeal as a prisoner of the Empire of Japan, Louis was given the opportunity to broadcast a radio message home. He used it to assure his family and friends that he was alive. Afterward, he was asked to read more statements, this time prepared by the propagandists, that would disparage his home country. Louis refused. He refused in spite of the offer to be provided a nice place to live with good food. He refused even knowing that he would return to the fame prisoner of war camp as a greater target for tortuous treatment. He refused because he would not accept personal rewards in exchange for the betrayal of his beliefs. What do you stand for? What does your organization stand for? If you discover a grant penury from an organization whose mission opposes your own, do you allow money to trump values? Do you allow shortcuts around regulations to endanger your own mission?
  5. Forgive: The movie does not address this as part of the story but rather as a post script. However, the book is not just the story of Louis’ wartime experiences. His life after the war exemplified the same theme of endurance. Louis and his wife, Cynthia, endured years of alcohol abuse. Louis’ personal struggles with hated and desires for revenge threatened to ruin his marriage and life until he found (or rediscovered) that his faith in God and his forgiveness of his former captors brought him the peace he so desperately needed. Are you still captive to former torturers in your life? Did you have a business partner or competitor who spread rumors about you? A bully who belittled you? A boss who thwarted your good faith efforts? When all is said and down, forgiving wrongs will do you good, whereas holding on to slights and spite will only eat away at you, not them.

When you read or listen to this book, or perhaps watch the movie, keep your nonprofit and its mission in mind. You will likely find themes and stories applicable to your work, among them: Act, Find Motivation, Stand for Something, Endure and Forgive.

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