The Art of the Comeback

“To have a comeback you have to have a setback.”

—Mr. T

Falmouth High School—January 1983. I jump for a rebound. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the court, clutching my right shoulder in extreme pain. I would learn an hour later at the hospital that I’d dislocated my shoulder.

Shoulders are pretty important for basketball. As it turned out, I would miss the final month of my junior-year season before rejoining the team for a deep play-off run.

Deering High School—November 1983. It’s the last quarter of the final preseason game of my senior year. My team (Lake Region) secures a rebound and we’re off on a fast break. I am ahead of the pack and my brother lofts a strong and accurate pass my way. I jump to catch it on the run. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the court, clutching my right knee in extreme pain.

I would learn three days later that I had a complete tear of my ACL. Knees are pretty important for basketball. Surgery was next. I would miss my entire senior season.

Bowdoin College—February 1987. Morrell Gymnasium is full as it always is for Colby vs. Bowdoin. The game is tied at 88 as the final seconds tick off the clock. Our point guard Chris has the ball out beyond the top of the key. I’m in the right corner behind the 3-point line. All the other Bowdoin players are on the left-hand side of the court. This is an isolation play. Either we score at the buzzer, or the game goes into overtime.

Chris penetrates the gap in front of me. My defender leaves for a split second to help. At that moment Chris passes me the ball. As soon as I’ve caught it I’m airborne, releasing my jump shot. Everything goes into slow motion and then the ball backspins its way through the hoop. It is my 30th point of the game, and Bowdoin wins, 91–88. Players and fans rush the court.

It is the pinnacle of my basketball comeback from not one but two devastating injuries.

Between the moment of crashing to the floor at Deering High School with a torn ACL and sinking that shot in the final game of my junior-year season at Bowdoin came thousands of hours of rehab, recovery, and practice. Never during those three years was the result certain. Although the process was filled with setbacks, highs, lows, and lots of work, it never occurred to me to stop playing. That option never entered my mind. I was determined to be a multiyear college starter at Bowdoin, and with lots of help along the way, I pulled it off.

I have other comeback stories as well. Quite a few of them dot my life.

You have them too. Each one of them has explored and altered the universe. The meaning of the past and the trajectory of the future change every time a comeback occurs.

Setbacks are prerequisites for comebacks. There is no light without the dark. This is how human life on Earth is wired. The human experience is a never-ending dance between setbacks and comebacks, and it’s how we embrace them that determines our course.

I do not know a single human life that has been nonstop smooth sailing. Some may look that way, but that’s only because you are not seeing the full story. Every human life is a series of comebacks. If you think you’ve failed to prevail after misfortune, this only confirms that your comeback story is not over yet. There is no time limit. If you are alive, the comeback is still in play. It’s never too late to make a move, and, conversely, it is never too late to have another challenge come your way.

Comebacks are an example of our oneness with the universe. The future is always being written, created, and designed by us. We are the future, and we are the past.

Comebacks do not just change the future; they can also change the past.

My knee injury was devastating in that moment. For a short time, I was despondent. I saw no good in it at all. Today, I look at that twelve-inch incision scar on my right leg and smile. That torn ACL was one of the very best things that ever happened to me. I grew and gained so much more from it than I lost. In this way, I changed the past. My knee injury went from being a curse to a blessing because of how I chose to respond to it. My approach to the future gave a different meaning and value to something from the past.

The setback is the opportunity.

There is no comeback without the setback.

The value of what’s seemingly in the past is still to be determined—by you.


Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future. www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com



This blog post is a reprint from an article Kevin recently wrote for The Maine Monitor, published October 24, 2021

There’s a lot to learn from babies, one step at a time

The CEO of Hancock Lumber notes that infants learn to walk with minimal training or coaching. Leaders can structure their organizations with this in mind.

BY | OCTOBER 24, 2021

Humans arrive on Earth already knowing how to learn. Exceptional organizations of the 21st century will come to honor this, get out of the way, and allow self-organized growth to flourish in a natural rhythm that dances to the hum of the universe itself, says Kevin Hancock. Submitted photo.

“We are not the helpless subjects of evolution. We are evolution.”  — Erich Jantsch

A baby goes from crawling to walking in a matter of months with almost no coaching. It’s a system of trial and error, tipping and falling, progress and regression, experimentation, and self-correction. Babies teach themselves to walk by watching the world around them and advancing through self-motivation, loosely structured group interaction and practice. This is the optimal learning system for humans but unfortunately, human organizations rarely use it.

Think how a baby learns to walk. Now picture how we teach students. Then visualize how organizations typically supervise adults at work. Finally, contemplate how governments rule from remote capitals.

Then think again about how a baby learns to walk. Can you see a disconnect between how humans are naturally wired to learn and grow?

Our systems for teaching, managing and governing are all top-down and standardized exercises in following and conformity. A baby aspiring to walk has more freedom to acquire that complex skill on its own than a 16-year-old has in English class, a mature adult has at work or a responsible citizen has during a pandemic. Control and standardization from the center: That’s how we’ve come to teach, train, direct and un-inspire.

Now, think one more time about how a baby learns to walk. Next, consider how we might reimagine our learning and governance systems.


Discovery in rural India

Over a decade ago in remote villages across India, Sugata Mitra conducted a series of exceptional social experiments designed to better understand how children learn. In dirt-covered town squares where kids congregated, he inserted a computer screen and control panel with Internet access into a randomly selected wall. No instructions were left behind. No adults stood by to invite children to gather and then teach them what to do.

Here’s what happened next . . .

Within hours, a child would find the device and begin experimenting. This child, like all others who participated, had never used a computer or been on the Internet. To add to the complexity, the computer language was English, which none of the children in the region had studied or spoken.

In less than 10 minutes, that first user was successfully browsing the web. By the end of the first day, dozens of children had congregated, taken a turn and learned to use the device. Within weeks, the group knew hundreds of English words and achieved advanced Internet navigation skills to play games, watch shows and gather information. When later tested on proficiency, the children typically passed. Everyone earned the same high grades. Rarely were there discrepancies in learning.

“Big parts of primary education can actually happen on their own,” Sugata said. “Learning does not have to be imposed from a top-down system. In nature, all systems are self-organized. Learning is ideally a self-organizing system.”

Sugata then described from his research the four optimal conditions for learning:

  • Fault tolerant
  • Minimally invasive
  • Fluid, allowing free-flowing connectivity with others
  • Self-organizing

Humans know how to learn

In 2021, Hancock Lumber was recognized as one of the “Best Places to Work in Maine” for the eighth straight year. Across 16 sites and 600 employees, our engagement score was a 90 compared to the national average of 34, according to Gallup polls.

What training systems were involved to earn such a score? None.

Which outside consulting groups were engaged? None.

What off-site leadership programs were managers and supervisors sent to? None.

Then how did it happen?

First, a clear vision was established. Then a small amount of modeling was provided. From there it was all self-organized. We became one of the “Best Places to Work” the same way a baby learns to walk.

Humans arrive on Earth already knowing how to learn.

Exceptional organizations of the 21st Century will come to honor this, get out of the way, and allow self-organized growth to flourish in a natural rhythm that dances to the hum of the universe itself. Every human is capable of learning, leading and evolving given the freedom, safety and flexibility to do so. But for this to occur, leaders of established organizations must show restraint and refrain from making all the rules, inserting excessive structure, and suffocating the insatiable capacity of humans to learn and grow.

Leadership: Dispersed in nature

I was alone one night in the Arizona desert east of Flagstaff when the epiphany arrived. It came in the form of five short words:  “In nature, power is dispersed.” I froze in place, contemplating the significance of this knowledge before asking aloud a series of rhetorical questions to the desert itself.

“Where is the capital of this desert landscape? Where is its headquarters? Where are all the managers and supervisors? Which one of these cacti is in charge of all the others?”

The answer to each question was abundantly clear. The leadership power of nature is dispersed. It inhabits all its pieces, big and small, living and non-living.

Humans who are a part of nature, not above it, ultimately aspire to organize in this same way. But for that to happen, our approach to leadership must change.

Think about how a baby learns to walk, and the roles parents do and do not play in that complex learning process. That’s the kind of leadership we need more of.

“Let children wander aimlessly around ideas.”  — Sugata Mitra


Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.


This is the forty-fifth post in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021. Kevin is dedicating these writings in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk. To invite others to join The Business of Shared Leadership and receive these posts, just pass this link along. The more who join, the deeper the energy field of engagement will become! Thank you!