Finally, we come to the most challenging type of work-neighbor of all—our competitors—the ones we’re allowed to despise. They threaten our livelihoods, take market share that belongs to us, force us to lower prices or raise quality—in other words, they create all kinds of havoc in what would otherwise be a smooth-running business. If there is one group of people we would eradicate off the face of the earth if we could, it would be our competitors.
I think that’s why the most common metaphor authors of business books use to make their points is warfare—“Marketing Warfare,” “Guerilla Marketing,” “Positioning—The Battle for the Mind” and “The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.” These books are so popular because they exploit the “us-vs.-them” tendency of our human nature and they entice us by promising to show us how to kill our competitors dead so that we’re left with the customers all to ourselves. Little do we realize that by chopping at them, we’re actually chopping at ourselves.
We need our competitors. In business as in science, and clearly as in athletics, performance often doesn’t get better without the contribution of competitors. Whether it’s a race to the moon, to map the human genome, to break the four-minute mile or to make personal computing accessible to all of us, competition pushes us to be better than we thought we could be. Sure we want to win—we should! But there’s a difference between doing it with a soft heart by striving to be worthy to triumph over an honored competitor and doing it with a hard heart by giving into our aggressive tendency to want to kill off anyone in our way.
In the business world I’m familiar with, we tend to de-humanize our competitors so severely that we lose any sense of fellowship with them in our common service to the world. In that sense, we businesspeople could learn a thing or two from athletes. Despite the occasional example to the contrary, athletes recognize the fundamental fellowship of all competitors although there can be only one victor in any athletic contest. They call it “sportsmanship.” I don’t think we even have an equivalent word in business.
For my money, no two competitors capture the ethos of sportsmanship better than John Landy and Roger Bannister at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where Bannister broke the four-minute mile.
After that victory in Vancouver, Roger Bannister talked about John Landy, “He is the sort of runner I could never become, and for this I admire him. Before Vancouver he achieved a record of solo mile races that I could never have equaled. At Vancouver he had the courage to lead at the same speed in a closely competitive race. His boldness forced me to abandon my time schedule and lose myself quite completely in the struggle itself.”
In reply, John Landy said, “I tried to set a fast pace from the start. I did exactly as I wanted, but I was beaten by a better man today.” Not quite the tone of Vince Lombardi’s classic remark, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
At the stadium where it happened, there is a now statue commemorating that achievement. It is not of one man, but of two men—the winner, Roger Bannister, and the honored competitor who made it possible, John Landy.
A month later, John Landy broke the barrier, too, and within five years, so did 20 other people. Before breaking the record, Roger Bannister said, “More people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the four-minute mile.” Today, high school students do it. The fastest mile is now 3.43 minutes.
Our competitors motivate us to be better than we would be without them. Without them nipping at our heels, we’d all be a bunch of flaccid runners. When we can be grateful to them for pushing us, even though sometimes we lose, we stay on the vine and experience the joy of competition and not just the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
Just before St. Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonians, he gives that community one last instruction:
“Render constant thanks; such is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes 5:18)
And that is where I’d like to close tonight. Gratitude! Thanksgiving! It is daily within our power no matter where we are on the corporate totem pole. It is within our capabilities no matter how small our job. It is within our energy no matter how hard we’re working. And we get stronger with practice.
To help you in your gratitude practice, here are three simple questions to ask yourself and to encourage your colleagues to ask themselves, too:
- How have your customers been your support or inspiration, helping you to learn, grow,
- How have your colleagues helped you to accomplish something that would have been
difficult, if not impossible, without them?
- When have your honored competitors pushed yourself to do your best?
In answering those questions, we experience the heart-softening effects of gratitude and we open ourselves to the healing grace of God as each day He knits us tighter and tighter back on His vine. Let me finish with this beautiful excerpt from Isaiah 58.
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,… then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall quickly be healed. The vindicator shall go before you and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundation of many generations and you shall be called ‘Repairer of the breach.’” (Is 58:6 ff)
Repairer of the breach. Wounds healing. Joy flowing. At work—of all places.
I’ve heard it said that “Work is a four-letter word.” I think it is. And that word is ‘love.’
This post is an excerpt from a talk given by Lisa Fortini-Campbell author and adjunct Professor of Management at the Kellogg School of Management