The problem with leaders always aiming to be No. 1

HR leader, confident female business leader‘Can you help us win?’ This is often the first question I am asked when invited to work with companies to develop teams and support culture change.

I always respond by asking, ‘What do you want to win and why?’ Sometimes there’s a pause, even a little confusion. ‘It’s all about winning isn’t it?’ often follows. Some reassert an apparently obvious, self-explanatory goal to be ‘no 1’ in the marketplace, ‘best in sector’, maybe win an industry award. Some reply with percentages of growth or amounts of profit. If my questions are still being tolerated, I go on to ask, ‘Why do you and your company deserve to be No 1?’ ‘What positive difference to the world will you make by being the best in your sector?’ Clear, inspiring answers are unfortunately rare, but therein lies the opportunity for performance and impact on a whole new level.

I am always exploring how much of a sense of purpose exists within companies that I work with. What are the fundamental aims from which the daily mindsets, behaviours and conversations flow? If there is a primary focus on competition and rankings, then ego, status and extrinsic rewards often dominate the culture. This typically results in low levels of engagement and motivation levels, despite the persistent myths that targets are useful for raising performance. In truth, they are limited and short-term and distract from investing in longer-term collaboration and innovation, learning and deeper motivation.

As a teacher and behavioural expert once explained to me, ‘If the aim is for children to be quiet and do as they are told, then star charts and short-term rewards work brilliantly. If the aim is for children to explore, learn, experiment and collaborate, then they are extremely unhelpful.’ You can see the parallel to the workplace. In both cases, the costs to performance are high.

When goals revolve purely around hitting annual sales targets and being No 1 in business, then we are in danger of overlooking long-term performance ingredients of positive culture, values and wellbeing along the way to achieving those goals. Creativity, innovation and resilience are lost and overall performance suffers.

Long-term sustainable success requires a different approach, which I call The Long Win based on three themes of Clarity, Constant Learning and Connection. Long-Win Thinking focuses on developing a clarity of purpose which is then linked to everyday working life, a Constant Learning mindset that values personal growth and development over short-term outcomes, and the prioritization of human Connections, so that we favour collaboration with others over competition against them.

The world of high-performance sport is slowly realizing that gold medals aren’t won purely by wanting to be No 1. My Olympic journey competing at three Olympic Games taught me the importance of focusing on improvement rather than results, on teamwork rather than proving my individual worth all the time, and realizing that the elite sporting journey can be about more than just medals. Ironically, this approach enabled me to win more medals.

In my career as a diplomat, developing a common purpose and investing in relationships were key to success. In negotiations, relationships are the main currency for influencing, persuading and creating new collaborative ways forward for the challenging global issues we face. No two negotiations are the same, no outcomes can be predicted, and a learning mindset is the best asset, constantly looking for opportunities to connect at a deeper level and new possibilities for cooperation.

The same applies in the workplace. A focus on results without purpose, without constant learning and growth, and without investing in deep, authentic relationships with others actually minimizes our chances of achieving the results we want. It’s a subtle but significant shift to focus on ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘who’, rather than simply ‘what’.

Experiences in the classroom, on the sports pitch and in the boardroom may seem to reinforce the need to compete to be No 1, but in truth it’s a meaningless, tired narrative that may have worked a century ago, but is certainly not a recipe for success in the 21st century. We face different and complex challenges on a local and global level ranging from climate change to inequality, from international security to public health which can’t be ‘won’ or ‘lost’ or ‘ranked’. The Long Win offers us a way to redefine success in order to prepare us for the social, environmental and economic issues that will determine our personal and professional lives. It creates a broader path from which to explore our potential better together. There is a bigger game to play with more riches to be won than simply being No 1 and a better way to succeed if we are open to it.

Cath BishopAbout the author

Cath Bishop is an Olympic medallist, International Diplomat and Cambridge University Business Coach. Her new book The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed is out on 13th October, published by Practical Inspiration Publishing, priced £12.99

Cath Bishop is a leadership expert and writer, bringing her unique experience in both top-level sport and international diplomacy to the most pressing issues facing businesses in the 21st century. She competed as a rower at three Olympic Games, becoming part of the first British women’s crew to win the World Championships and winning a Silver Olympic medal in coxless pairs event. As a senior diplomat, she worked on policy and negotiations, specialising in the stabilization policy for conflict-affected parts of the world.

Cath now works as a coach, facilitator and consultant, advising global businesses on team and leadership development and cultural change, and teaches on the Executive Education Faculty at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and other leading business schools. Cath is a regular newspaper reviewer on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House and has commentated on rowing for the BBC, Eurosport and BT Sport.

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