It’s a chief tenet of the Olympian spirit – taking part is more important than winning. But how do you play in a game where everyone is actually out to win?
In this post we turn to career consultant Simon North who looks at ways in which those of us who are not naturally competitive can still take part in the competition for the greater good of those around us…
“There is something about the word and concept of competitiveness in our language and culture that has deeply ingrained in us the message that to be the winner is very important. This has caused our society quite a lot of angst over the years. There can only be one winner in a race, yet you don’t want to let the losers feel they are not successful. Competiveness is therefore a complex matter.
Bradley Wiggins has just become the first ever Briton to win the Tour de France. Just before that, Roger Federer won Wimbledon for a record-equalling seventh time. These two great competitors are now back in business at a global competition where the Olympian spirit will be co-existing with the collective competitive spirit of the participant athletes, as it does at every Games. The issue of competitiveness not only rears its head on the sporting stage but also in less obvious arenas such as the political one. Aung San Suu Kyi is an example of a political figure currently scoring victories that puts sporting achievements in the shade. What do the very different worlds that these three figures occupy tell us about competing when we’re not natural competitors?
1. Share the Load
Although Wiggins was the one to stand on the podium in the yellow jersey, he couldn’t have won the Tour without the rest of his team. His fellow Team Sky riders supported their team leader by forming a peloton around him and sharing the workload. Their reward was being part of the winning team. If you’re not the main competitor in your team at work, you can still help your team stay competitive by doing your share of the workload. Ask those co-workers who are going for glory what you can do today to help.
2. Contribute Your Skills
Like all top tennis players, Federer travels to tournaments not by himself but with a whole support network in tow. Although a tennis professional is the one competing hard on the court, their coach, physiotherapist, masseur and manager all contribute to his ability to win tennis matches by deploying their different skills. You may not have any desire to compete as, say, a salesperson, but the skills you are comfortable using can benefit your colleagues in the sales department by making their job easier to do. If you’ve ever used your organizational skills to manage someone else’s diary, for instance, you’ve contributed to the optimization of their working environment.
3. Win with Kindness
Dr. Suu Kyi is feted around the world as the key to bringing democracy to Burma because of her success in going from political prisoner to political leader. This success has not been brought about by being aggressive towards the current military government but through peaceful means. She has not been competitive with her rivals or with people who view her as an enemy. Her focus is on doing her best for Burma rather than on any personal quest for power. However, it’s clear she has the steeliness, the hardness and the courage to survive in competitive environments without needing to be actively ruthless. Look to succeed in your career by being civil to others.
4. Become a Tactical Mastermind
Wiggins and Federer don’t create their strategies for winning without input from others. Although a sportsperson can’t take their coach or the team manager out there with them, they can execute the tactical plan suggested to them. Even if you’re not the one heading up your company’s tender or pitch, you can still offer to contribute to the strategic planning that will inform the business case at the heart of the proposal.
5. Be the Quiet One
There’s something noisy about competing. When you’re in a competition, the adrenaline is rushing noisily through you and there’s lots going on around you too. Where does quietness fit into this? It’s OK to be the quiet one in a competitive organization because every team needs someone who stays silent long enough to listen. As team leader, Wiggins had to do most of Team Sky’s talking during the Tour in terms of media interviews. For the leader of a peloton, this responsibility can no doubt add stress to an already pressurized situation. When the rider needs to vent behind closed doors, they turn to the people they know are capable of staying quiet and just listening. Be the listener in your company, the go-to person for co-workers who need to get the stresses and strains of a competitive professional environment off their chest.
6. Don’t Affront—Affirm
You can win the moral ground by throwing your weight behind codes of behaviour you agree with, rather than directly attacking the ones you oppose. Instead of criticizing her political opponents for what her supporters worldwide see as unacceptable behavior, Dr. Suu Kyi instead talks about what her idea of acceptable behavior is. She’s winning a battle of hearts and minds through affirmation of the side she’s on rather than through affrontation with the opposition team. Instead of criticizing a market competitor’s values or actions, boost your own employer’s chances of winning the war for customers and new talent by positively discussing and representing what it stands for wherever you go.
7. Pick Your Fights
Professional tennis players don’t try to blow their non-professional hitting partners off the practice court to prove they’re the superior player or just because they can. Unfortunately, managers and leaders in business often do compete with underlings just to show how great and powerful they are and just because they can and are given the stage to. If you’re not naturally competitive, don’t force the issue by trying to prove something to your co-workers. Instead of trying to outdo them, continue to work in harmony with them and allow them to be the best they can be. Save your energy for victories that actually have a point.
8. Narrow the Field
A lot of tennis players were keen to enter the mixed doubles event at the Olympics this year. One of many potential reasons for this is the fact that there will only be 16 entrants in this event, making it theoretically easier to win a medal than in the singles, where there are more entrants and therefore more competition. You too can aim to become a winner in your own professional life by choosing a narrow field. To be the ultimate competitor, occupy a space where there are no other competitors. Yes, you may be great at XYZ but when you apply for a job and find out there are 750 other candidates who are also excellent in that particular field, you know the victory won’t be won easily. If you can find an extremely specialist area to become an expert in, there’s likely to be less people competing against you to be the world #1.”
Simon North is Founder of Position Ignition, one of the UK’s leading Career Consultancies and co-author of their eBook Make a Career Change Happen: 96 Tips to a New Career. Simon co-founded Position Ignition.com to provide career consulting to people looking for guidance and support through their career change, new career direction, job search and career development.