When To Lose One For The Gipper
One admission it pains me to make is that I generally hate to lose, at anything. There is something at the DNA level since childhood that makes defeat a very bitter-tasting pill to swallow. Over time, it was apparent that not everyone felt the same way about it that I did. I observed that some seemed to handle it well, and others didn’t seem to care. And others, like me, remembered every failure or loss. As a kid, failure tends to be centered around competition, like sports. If we lost the game, every strikeout or missed free throw, in my mind, was the reason for the defeat. And if we won, I had a hard time finding enjoyment in the outcome if my personal performance left room for improvement.
Of course, things move along and with maturity (hopefully) the ability to view things from a team perspective is acquired, along with the understanding that shared endeavors have a different measure of success that transcends the individual. So, at this point, decades removed from Little League sports, I can honestly say that….I still hate losing…at anything. My latest regularly self-inflicted soul-beatdowns are found on the golf course where my progress towards respectability seems to always move at a pace well below desired.
So, it is with that personality reveal that I bring up the topic of losing, and leadership. Karen Hurt’s blog “Lets Grow Leaders”, one of my favorites, planted the seed for this discussion in one of her recent columns, by asking the question, “When is it OK to lose the battle?”. Which is a fair question to ask, especially if you are in a position to win battles simply by pulling rank. Even among equals, getting in an argument with someone who won’t lose is like trying to beat up a skunk. You may win, but you will still smell afterwards.
Karen’s blog lists some valid reasons for “losing” and they are short, concise, and spot on. I particularly find the twin dynamic of both setting an example for how to discuss (by preserving one’s reputation as a non-dick), and preserving relationships further down the road. I have often counseled here that a career is a marathon of daily consistent behavior that defines how you are going to get things done. If you are that skunk guy, pretty soon, no one will argue with you because they don’t want to have to always shower up afterwards. Congratulations, you win again. And you’ll eat lunch by yourself a lot too, Pepe Le Pew. You should be very clear in your mind when and why you plan to blow up the bridge between you and another because rebuilding takes a lot of time. As Steven Sample said in the Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, “knowing what hill you are willing to die on” is a key piece of self-discovery for a leader.
I am a sucker for TED Talks and I generally believe that all the secrets to life are either found at TED, or in a Seinfeld episode. There are two pretty good T-Talks that have pulled down quite a few views (over 3.5 million). Professor Daniel Cohen explores the whole dynamic of argument and reduces it to a primal desire to “win” regardless of how much sense you make. Which suggests that you give careful consideration to thinking through your “argument” and try to objectively determine whether you are arguing for your idea, or to defeat the other idea.
Kathryn Schulz’s talk cuts right to the bone of one of the possibilities expressed by Karen Hurt. As in, you are wrong, dude. It highlights for me why one of the top emotions that a great leader must be capable of possessing is humility. Note I said “capable”. Good leaders don’t usually come out of the box with humility. The path between good and great goes straight through Humility. Good leaders are brimming with confidence which is super, right up to the point that they can’t see any way other than their own.
My takeaway from the whole “when to lose an argument” discussion is that as leaders, our jobs are to develop and empower people. It seems counterproductive to regularly engage them in such a way as to “win” every discussion point. The most frequent way this comes about is that daily interaction between the first line supervisor and the team. As a leader, you have to get to a point of being comfortable with people pursuing a course of action that you wouldn’t take, or might counsel against, based on your experience. In that position, I often reduced the various courses of action down to some simple questions – “If they do this, will it hurt their career, or perhaps just smart their pride a bit?”. Of course, as Kathryn Schulz suggests, maybe I am wrong. There is just no way to build good judgment, independent thinking, and problem solving into the learning dynamic without allowing a mistake or two. Especially when it may be yours.