Saturday, March 23, 2013

Winning isn't everthing; it's the only thing

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing is a well-known quotation in sports. Its assertion about the importance of winning has been touted as a basic tenet of the American sports creed and, at the same time, identified as encapsulating what is purportedly wrong with competitive sports. It is attributed to UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell ("Red") Sanders. In 1950, at a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo physical education workshop, Sanders told his group: "Men, I'll be honest. Winning isn't everything," then following a long pause, "Men, it's the only thing!" The quotation is widely attributed to football coach Vince Lombardi, who probably heard the phrase from UCLA coach Henry Russell Sanders. (Lombardi is on record using the quotation as early as 1959.)

Sports is a great metaphor for so many of life’s dilemmas. I think it is useful to consider the hard-knocks of business leadership in the context of coaching styles. Of course there are all kinds of leaders with a vast array of styles just like coaches. The terrible irony is that it is never black and white. I mean really. At the extreme ends of the spectrum there are two kinds of coaches.

A.    The coach that manages to let everyone play regardless of ability. This coach talks a lot about team work and sportsmanship. This coach is popular with parents and fans because little Johnny gets a chance to swing the bat (even if all indications are that he will strike out). I can completely understand this phenomenon having been a parent in the stands myself. 

B.     The other type of coach is all about winning. He will put the best players on the field and always gives the team the best possible chance at winning. His teams prepare and practice hard. This coach is not always popular because, at game time, some of his players have to sit on the bench. This coach is also more likely to lead the team to a championship.

I want to win. But it can get ugly if you aren’t careful. The coach A isn’t taking risks and everybody is happy. Coach B perseveres through criticism. He drives everyone. He works through adversity. Coach B is only vindicated when the team wins big. If all goes well, he is a champion. Now Coach B’s bench players have a life-long memory of being a part of a championship team. It beats the heck out of playing for a losing team any day. Regardless of the role, the bench player for Coach B remembers what it felt like to win. He has something more valuable that mere participation. He has seen first-hand what it takes to be a champion.

Of course, the two styles do not have to be mutually exclusive. Coach B (if you study him more carefully) is also more likely to be living in the real world of competition and real life lessons. Coach B has a team of players who learn about sacrifice, real-life trade-offs, sportsmanship and team-work. That’s the guy I want to play for…That’s the guy I want to be.

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