4 Reasons Underdogs Will Rule the World

The playing field was clearly uneven, but the “visiting team” had chosen to come and play by our rules: An underdog team at its finest. I was teaching executive presence and communication to MBA students, 30% for whom English is their second language. The final assignment was TEDdy talks, 5 minute speeches in the style of TED.

I knew the assignment was stacked in favor of the American students. I was sure I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt in grading. Not so. After the talks, I asked the students to rate “best in class.”

On both days the international students won by a landslide. My non-English speaking students out-performed the Americans in their own tongue. Why?

A Few Theories

They Didn’t Expect a Handicap:  There were no office appointments asking me to understand their plight. They just got in there and worked it.

They Were Deeply Committed: This course was an elective. They could have easily spared themselves the agony, but they wanted to improve.

They Welcomed Feedback: Throughout the course I had been worried that their accent would make it hard for their English speaking audience to understand. We worked on pacing, pauses and in some cases volume. They nailed it.

They Embraced Vulnerability: Each of these students grounded their speeches in their own vulnerability. They told THEIR stories with a passion that drew us in.

They Worked Hard: They embraced their disadvantage, and incorporated the tools and techniques we discussed in class. They clearly had practiced, again and again. There was no winging it involved.

Sometimes confidence is over-rated. Swimming upstream takes more work. Hard work produces results.

Beware of the side-effects of your own confidence. A humble underdog may be nipping at your heels.

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Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Career & Learning, Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.


  1. Some people are performance focused while others concentrate on prevention, or minimizing the downside.

    I’m the former. Tell me I can’t do something and that’s when I’ll do whatever it takes. Performance based.

    Prevention based people can also crush the goal however I have different convos with this group to get them moving.

    • Steve, that’s a helpful way of thinking about it for sure. I’m the same way, tell me I can’t do it and i really get fired up.

  2. Great story, Karin.

    I am a firm believer that luck is the result of hard work, perseverance, and grit.

    If we are always anticipating the unexpected, we land on our feet when confronted with the unknown.

  3. Your MBA class sounds like an extraordinary group of leaders that will be great assets in the workplace!

    Being an underdog is actually advantageous because it empowers us with the “not much to lose” mentality and therefore people usually go for it with greater risk taking.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us, Karin!

  4. What a great story! The problem with many of our students today is the notion of entitlement. I also liked the fact that these students embraced the feedback they received with the idea of improving themselves. Many Americans take feedback as bias, racism, feminism, or not being politically correct. We could take a lesson from those students who value hard work and are willing to pay the price to achieve what they want.

    • John, You are so right. I was a little nervous at first talking specifically about the accents etc, but that was an important part of helping a few of them nail their delivery.

  5. Some people are performance focused on what they can achieve. Others are prevention focused and concerned of the downside risk.

    I treat these two types of clients completely differently.

  6. In coaching sports, many believe that it is hardest to achieve improvement in a team (or individual) that is clearly better than the rest of the competition. The underdog has an obvious goal and a challenge – to beat the best – and improvement is almost inevitable. The coach of the best team (or individual) has to overcome complacency to find a way to improve without this obvious goal. The challenge becomes internal – to work hard and improve for the sake of improvement – and goals are much harder to identify.

    Resting on your laurels is not a recipe for continued success.

    • David, Excellent add. Thanks so much. I truly agree with you… and certainly the stuff of which great sports movies are made 😉

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