#16 The Law of the Big Mo
From the book “The 21 Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell
#16 The Law of the Big Mo - Momentum Is a Leader’s Best Friend
ALL LEADERS FACE THE challenge of creating change in an organization. The key is MOMENTUM—or “the big MO.” Just as every sailor knows that you can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving forward, strong leaders understand that to change direction, you first have to create forward progress—and that takes the Law of the Big MO.
In the movie Stand and Deliver, which is based on a real-life teacher named Jamie Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, the Law of the Big MO is expressed. Although teaching, motivating, and leading were in Jamie Escalante’s blood, his degree in Physics was from another country. So when he immigrated to the US it required him to work at a restaurant then at an electronics shop. However, because Jamie desired to make a difference in people’s lives he set out to earn another bachelors degree in the US.
At age 43, Jamie received his bachelors degree in Mathematics and was hired by Garfield High School to teach computer science. To his disappointment, he soon learned there was no funding for computers and was pushed into teaching basic math.
FIGHTING A TIDAL WAVE OF NEGATIVE MOMENTUM
Jamie quickly realized the school had a lot of problems. Discipline was non-existent and fights broke out regularly among students. Outsiders from the neighborhood not enrolled in the school also were permitted to roam the school campus. The principle at the time actually encouraged gang recognition on campus. The gangs were permitted to put up placas (signs with gang symbols) in various places on the school campus as a means of providing them with validation and provide more opportunities to identify with the school.
These were very difficult circumstances to teach in and Jamie thought of quitting almost daily. If not for his passion of teaching and his dedication to improving the lives of his students he would have given up. Shortly thereafter the school was in danger of losing its accreditation and the principle was replaced with a better leader who immediately went to work cleaning up the school. The new principle curtailed gang activity and chased outsiders off the campus. This lift in momentum stopped the negative slide the school was facing.
IT TAKES A LEADER TO GET THINGS STARTED
Various leaders began challenging the schools best and brightest with AP exams. Jamie pushed his promising students to preparing and taking the calculus AP test.
In 1978, Jamie organized the first calculus class. At the time Garfield High School had a population of over 3,500 students, however, he was only able to round up 14 students to take the class. By late spring just 5 students remained. Each of them took the AP test, but only 2 passed.
TWO KEYS: PREPARATION AND MOTIVATION
Jamie realized that he could succeed only if his students were effectively inspired and properly prepared. For students that needed motivation he provided extra homework or he’d challenge one of the school’s athletes to a handball match (which Jamie never lost). For students needing encouragement, he’d take them to McDonald’s as a reward. At the end of the day, Jamie modeled hard work, dedication to excellence, and desire.
IT STARTS WITH A LITTLE PROGRESS
In the fall, Jamie put together another calculus class with nine students. By the end of the year, 8 students took the test and six passed. By 1980, Jamie had fifteen students and fourteen passed the AP test. The following year 18 students took the test - this was the subject of the movie Stand and Deliver. Each student worked extremely hard - arriving to school early and often staying until 7pm. After taking the test each student that took the test felt they had done well.
A grader for the Educational Testing System (who administers AP exams) found some similarities on several of the tests the students had taken. This led to an investigation of 14 students who were ultimately accused of cheating. The investigation was mired in bureaucracy and the only way students could receive college credit was to retake the test. Despite the students not being in school for 3 months when taking the test, all 14 passed and Jamie’s pass rate was 100% for the year.
NO - MOMENTUM MAKER
What could have killed the momentum Jamie had built at Garfield High turned into a real momentum builder. Students became confident and the community rallied their support for the program. Publicity gave a push for East Los Angeles College to start a summer program that Jamie had been pushing for his students.
By this time, the math program took off. In 1983, the # of students that passed the AP test doubled and the following year it doubled again. By 1987, 129 students took the test and 85 passed. Garfield High, once considered a sinkhole, suddenly produced 27% of AP calculus passing scores by Mexican-Americans in the entire US.
THE MOMENTUM EXPLOSION
The benefits of the Law of the Big Mo were felt by all of Garfield High’s students. The school began offering prep classes for other AP exams in Spanish, history, European history, biology, physics, French, government, and computer science.
In 1987, nine years after Jamie started the program, Garfield High students took more than 325 AP exams. There was also a waiting list of more than 400 students outside the school district waiting to enroll. An amazing turnaround for a school on the brink of losing its accreditation to become a top 3 inner city school in the US. That’s the power of the Law of the Big Mo.
ONLY A LEADER CAN CREATE MOMENTUM
It takes a leader to create momentum. Followers catch it and managers are able to continue it once it begins. But creating it requires someone who can motivate others. Harry Truman once said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But for leaders, that statement should be changed to read, “If you can’t make some heat, get out of the kitchen.”
TRUTHS ABOUT MOMENTUM
Momentum is a leader’s best friend. Sometimes it’s the only difference between winning and losing. Momentum makes a HUGE difference in organizations. When you have no momentum, even the simplest tasks can seem to be insurmountable problems. But when you have momentum on your side, the future looks bright, obstacles appear small, and trouble seems temporary.
MOMENTUM MAKES LEADERS LOOK BETTER THAN THEY ARE
When leader’s have momentum on their side, people think they’re geniuses. They look past shortcomings. They forget about the mistakes the leaders have made. Momentum change’s people’s perspective of leaders.
MOMENTUM HELPS FOLLOWERS PERFORM BETTER THAN THEY ARE
With enough momentum, nearly any kind of change is possible.
MOMENTUM IS EASIER TO STEER THAN TO START
Getting started is a struggle, but once you’re moving forward, you can really start to do amazing things.
MOMENTUM IS THE MOST POWERFUL CHANGE AGENT
Momentum puts victory within reach.
If your desire is to do great things with your organization, never overlook the power of momentum. It truly is the leader’s best friend. If you can develop it, you can do almost anything. That’s the power of the Big Mo.
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I hope this book provides you with guidance along your journey.