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Building Character Through Competition
Dick Roth September 1990
If we're in business to beat the competition, thinking that there can only be one winner, we've already lost the game. In October 1964, I stood under a cloudless autumn sky on the infield of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. From my vantage point as a competitor, I was deeply moved by the tradition and the pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies. The brightly colored flags and traditional costumes, the presence of the Emperor of Japan, the jets, the myriad balloons, the swarms of pigeons, and the hundreds of thousands of people all contributed to my awe. During a quiet moment, the huge scoreboard at one end of the stadium flashed the words of the Olympic motto: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts, it's how you play the game." I was jarred out of my state of reverie. "No way!" I said to myself, "I'm here to win!" This viewpoint, while commonly accepted, is really quite jaded. Just competing in the Olympics is a tremendous honor and feat. Winning any medal is extraordinary. Yet somehow we have come to believe that winning is everything; nobody remembers who got second. It has not always been so: Pierre de Coubertin penned the words of the timeless Olympic motto less than 100 years ago. Competition for the joy of it used to be the focus, even in Olympic athletics. In the movie Chariots of Fire, a true story about the 1920 Olympics, an English gentleman gives his place in a race to another, simply for the pleasure of watching him run. As recently as 1936, Jesse Owens helped an Olympic competitor better himself without thought of how it might affect the eventual outcome of the race. When I competed in 1964, our attitudes toward winning had become quite egocentric, but we still thought of ourselves as amateurs. Very few of us ever considered making a living from our sport. What a difference today! Not only do athletes train under professional coaches, many have several specialty coaches for strength, endurance, form, flexibility, choreography, costume, and mental conditioning. Why? Because our society now values winning so much that the stakes and rewards are immeasurably higher. An athlete can be set for life by beating the world. We expressed collective shock when Ben Johnson got caught for using steroids. But he is only a symptom of our societal overemphasis on "winning at any cost." This attitude has totally captured our collective psyche and permeates society far beyond the boundaries of sports. Over the last 50 years, we have seen not only the decline of the traditional character ethic that has made our country and culture strong, we have also seen a corresponding rise in all-or-nothing competitiveness. Winning used to be like the cream rising to the top: if you let things alone, the best would appear all by itself. Now we think of winning in terms of beating others. While the difference is subtle, it is profound. This win-lose ethic comes out of a mentality of scarcity the idea that there is not enough for everyone; that if someone else wins, I can't. The first 150 years of our country were dominated by expansion, optimism, and growth. There was so much freedom and opportunity that realizing the American dream was limited only by energy and imagination. The country was working toward a common goal: "The business of America is business." Then came the depression of the 1930s. Our government assumed new responsibilities: it took care of us. And quietly, our beliefs about limitless abundance and expansion started to shift. For the first time, we perceived a limited pool of resources. As survival became a main concern, people started looking out for number one: "Maybe there isn't enough for everybody if not, I'll get mine first." This new attitude was reflected in the growth of self-centered success literature, as well as in the excessive competitive attitude of "beating" instead of "winning." True "winning" requires starting with a level playing field: if everyone has an equal chance, the best will naturally prevail. The word "win" comes from the Old English winnan, "to struggle, to contend, to contest." This definition implies that winning is a process, not an outcome. "Beating" has come to mean doing whatever you can, ethically or unethically, to gain an advantage over others. The word "competition" is derived from the Latin word competere, "to seek together, to coincide, to agree." In this root meaning, there is no connotation of "losing." But in modern business usage, competition implies a winner and a loser: competition for a bid; competition for a promotion; competition to be the best sales team; competition between divisions, companies, or countries.
The idea that you beat someone else is a fallacy. Athletes never beat anyone but themselves, never conquer anything but their own doubts and fears. We used to talk about "psyching out" others, but we were only "psyching ourselves up." We always give our approval to our own state of mind, either tacitly or directly. We have the power to choose our reactions. Pavlov's model works well for dogs and rats, but people can choose their response. Our choices are derived from what is important to us, our values. Born from these values are our attitudes, including competitive attitudes. In other words, we choose how we react to competition. To judge your competitive attitude, ask yourself this simple question: "Do I care if the score is kept when I play games?" If the answer were placed on a continuum, one end would be, "I have to know the score," and on the other end, "I just play to do my best and would rather not know the score." People with a win-win ethic do not gain security or satisfaction from keeping score and beating others. Competing at the highest level of mutual competence is the win-win goal of the game. The outcome is incidental. The fun is in the playing, not the victory. Winning is the process, not the outcome. Owners of win-lose attitudes gain self-respect through comparisons with others by keeping score, which is an illusory or distorted source at best. When you realize that you are only competing with yourself, your source of self-esteem comes from an inner measure, which is ultimately more correct.
Building Character Through Competition - FranklinCovey
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Competition, of course, is a tremendous motivator. Properly understood and channeled, it can be a vital component of success. However, competing only to beat someone is a defective attitude that doesn't align with timeless principles. When the win-win attitude is rooted in our subconscious, it builds relationships. Our natural state of existence is interdependent, both socially and environmentally. An attitude of "beating" would lead us to try to get things for ourselves; an interdependent attitude of win-win allows us to be in harmony with the way things naturally are.
Why Japan is Winning
Why are American companies getting clobbered in the international marketplace by Pacific Rim countries? In large part, because these societies place a higher value on working together towards a common end. The governments and the people are achieving the same purpose through a mentality that says there is enough to go around. This more closely matches the original meaning of "compete," to seek together. Our rush to embrace Japanese team-building management techniques will eventually fail if we don't change our underlying attitudes and paradigms. Team building is only a technique. It works in an Oriental culture because their sense of ego expands to embrace more than one's self. When they hear the word "you," they hear it in the plural. The only true prescription for leadership success is to first change one's character, then apply techniques that come from that character. Surface techniques will not counterbalance our underlying character tendencies. In fact, technique-oriented prescriptions will eventually be counterproductive because they cause deep subconscious confusion. We simply must alter our scripting first. This can only come after much effort. There is no quick fix. We see corporations throwing one trendy management tool after another at their people. But what is at the core of your company speaks much louder than whatever new trend you wear on the sleeve. The leader's job is to influence the core character of the company. Without a shift in paradigms, we will see the same old cycle: new techniques will sprout to replace the "outdated, shop-worn, surface-oriented" fads we are using today. What we will eventually learn is that style and technique only work if they are aligned with the principles and beliefs from which our conduct flows. Now is the time to realign our character and actions with timeless principles, to place winning (in business and athletics) in proper perspective. We will then see a return to an abundance mentality and win-win attitudes. Our culture will again take competition to mean working together toward a common goal. We will hear "you" in its plural, not its singular meaning. Our other choice is to see ourselves slip further and further behind in the new international realities of the 1990s. Dick Roth, who won an Olympic Gold Medal in swimming in 1964, has been a successful entrepreneur, businessman, consultant, and public speaker.