Winning and Losing

Jim Bruce's picture By: Jim Bruce
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A couple of months ago, Gary Augustson posted a BLOG at the Leaders Community Site which has a powerful message for all of us:  “Life is full of ‘wins’ and ‘losses’."  In the end, how you deal with both will be one of the keys to your success as a leader.”  Given the importance of what Gary says, I’ve included the entire post below as this week’s reading.

 .  .  .  .  .     jim

While I hate the frequent use of sports analogies, especially in the higher education setting, it is a statement about our times that it is all too often one of the best ways to draw attention to a point you want to make.  At Penn State, we are fortunate to have an icon in Joe Paterno who makes it easier to feel comfortable using such analogies.  Joe is unfortunately known mostly for what he accomplishes on a Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium in the fall rather than for what his real contributions to the University have been over the years, but I will not dwell further on that here.  In over 50 years of having to deal with the “sports press” (a strange lot at best) and their need to “make a story” after each game whether there is a story that deserves to be made or not, he has developed ways to communicate with them that serves him and his charges well.  In these communications, some of his philosophies of life emerge, many of which contains messages that all of us could learn from.

One of my favorites is his observations that  “You are never as good as you think you are after a win, and you are never as bad as you think you are after a loss.”  I would suggest that there is a key lesson in there for all leaders.  Every successful leader has had “wins” and “losses” – and you will continue to have them throughout your career.  The elation you feel from a well deserved victory can (and certainly should) be savored, but you can’t let the flavor of success dull your senses for the next battle lest you get a bit over confident and don’t prepare for it as you did for the victory just accomplished.  Each and every “contest” is a separate affair that needs to be treated with the same concern and tenacity as your early victories.  There are lessons to be learned about what tactics worked and, even in victory, what tactics didn’t work as well as they should have or must in the future if there are to be similar victories.  You need to prepare for the next battle with same fervor you would if you had lost this one.

 And as for the “losses”?  You can’t dwell on them.  Yes, again, it is fine to experience the emotion of the event – to feel “the agony of defeat” as some would say  –but only to the extent it allows you to get beyond the moment and to understand that you want to avoid such moments in the future.   Analyze the experience – again from both the positive and negative sides.  At the very least, make it a learning experience – both in what to try again (maybe with a slightly different approach or emphasis) and what tactics simply didn’t work – and why they didn’t work.

And don’t forget in all this analysis of both victories and losses that different environments make different approaches more amenable for success than others.  The same game plan may not fit the same battle.  Continuing the sports analogy, it should be clear that a game played in a driving rainstorm will likely require a different strategy for victory than one played on a sunny day.  Every lesson learned needs to be tempered by and adapted to the changing environment.

From a personal perspective, sports has demonstrated for me another key lesson.  You have to learn to win with style and lose with style.  In the pre-Big Ten era for Penn State, our fiercest rivalry was with Pitt – and there were many people for whom it was not a “pleasant rivalry.”  There truly was a lot of emotion and rancor surrounding the end of year football game.  In the last decade or so of this rivalry, Penn State prevailed most of the time.  I recall one year when Pitt finally beat us – and I got a call from my colleague at Pitt rubbing my nose in it.  My retort to him was – you gotta learn to win with style – and I was serious about it..  This sentiment is echoed by those coaches (Paterno being among the most visible of them) who disdain showboating by their athletes.  When you achieve something successful you need to act like you have been there before – like this is where you are expecting to be – not something that is so unusual for you that you need to celebrate elaborately.

I believe this also provides a lesson for leaders.  It IS important how you react to both victories and losses. You can swell with great pride internally when you have a wonderful win – you can even celebrate in private with those who are close to you – but your public persona has to be that of humility and respect for the others in the battle.  Your boss – and his/her boss – your peers (many whom you may have been battling against) – your staff (who may well be the benefactors of your victory) – may not appear to be watching your victory celebration closely – but they are.  Most will be expecting to see nothing – so the absence of a ‘victory dance in the end zone’ may not be acknowledged – but the presence of one certainly will.  And the support you might expect that such a public display of victory would give those who battled with you – or benefitted most from the victory - will be more than offset by the disdain and negative reactions of others, many of whom may not have even been engaged in or knowledgeable of the battle.  All they will see is your in appropriate demonstration.

Losing with style is just as important.  You need to accept the loss with grace, even if there is a deep burning disappointment within you.  It is fine to let those who were depending upon you to win the battle understand your level of disappointment, but you need to accept the loss and move on.  You need to make it clear that you accept the loss as yours (you are the leader) and not push the blame to others.  Make sure those who won the battle know that you respect their victory and then move on to the next page of “the game.”   If the victors “rub your nose it in” or do a “victory dance in the end zone,” ignore it – except to learn  how it made you and your supporters feel –  to help ensure you don’t make the same mistake at some future time.

Life is full of “wins” and “losses.”  In the end, how you deal with both will be one of the keys to your success as a leader.

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