One of the most endearing and enduring images from Roger Federer’s farewell game was the sight of his legendary opponent Rafael Nadal and him, sitting next to each other, both with tears in their eyes. Let that sink in. Rafa was visibly devastated that his most significant and successful opponent was retiring.
Translate that to business imagery — it’s like Pepsi weeping if Coke announced it was quitting the business. It would be like Hyundai India shattered at the thought that Maruti will stop making and selling cars. The business world is known for dealing with competition as the enemy.
“Obliterate them.” is the usual cry of the CEO or the head of sales. Teams revel in poking fun of their rivals. Schadenfreude is on full display when a rival has a bad time. But are opponents really to be treated as the enemy or as a friend? That has a lot to do with the kind of leader we are.
No real loser
I often begin some of my leadership workshops by asking a participant to come up to the front. I then announce to the audience that our friend would like to have biceps like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold of course had biceps twenty-four inches in circumference which is often the entire circumference of the person beside me.
We then play out our friend going to the gym every day and finding a pencil or pen he proceeds to use that to do a hundred bicep curls. We then joke how he shows up to work and none of us can see any significant difference to his biceps. We conclude that for him to really build his biceps he needs to go grab the heavy dumbbells and do the curls with them — that will hurt, to begin with, but if he stays consistent, he will start to build some cool biceps.
I then go on to make the point that it is most often the tough things in life that help us grow — the easy things we may enjoy but they rarely help us grow. Do we consider the dumbbell an enemy or a friend? Anything that stretches us, challenges us, and stimulates our growth is really our friend. And isn’t that what our opponents do for us if only we choose to see them that way? Isn’t a tough competitor a path to our growth?
“Anything that stretches us, challenges us, and stimulates our growth is really our friend. And isn’t that what our opponents do for us if only we choose to see them that way? Isn’t a tough competitor a path to our growth?”
One of my favourite books The Inner Game of Tennis has Tim Gallwey drive this point home: “Each player tries his hardest to defeat the other, but in this use of competition it isn’t the other person we are defeating; it is simply a matter of overcoming the obstacles he presents.
In true competition, no person is defeated. Both players benefit from their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other. Like two bulls butting their heads against one another, both grow stronger, and each participates in the development of the other.”
The next time we wish to ‘disappear’ the competition or hope something bad happens to them it will be good to remember these words.
The battle on the field is with yourself. The goal is to be a better version of that self. To use the cricket analogy — you want to be able to bat better, bowl better, field better and who better than a top-notch opponent to get you there?
I’ve quoted before what UFC Wrestling Champion George St. Pierre once said: “I always train with better wrestlers than me, better boxers than me, better jujitsu guys than me. When you train with people who are better than you, it keeps challenging you. By challenging me, it makes me better. It makes you better develop your skills than someone who is always training with the same people over and over again.”
That’s what Carol Dweck refers to as the growth mindset. Where challenges and the tough project or assignment are seen as paths to growth not barriers to it. Where you welcome a strong competitor simply for the opportunity, she will present to help you grow faster, better than if you were unchallenged.
The fear with which many of India’s electric vehicle manufacturers reacted to Tesla’s prospective entry spoke volumes about their limited view of growth and the real desire to get the best before the customer. How different from when Pawan Goenka, the then MD of Mahindra & Mahindra and a Tata Motors competitor said, “It is very unfortunate that the Nano didn’t do well,” in an interview with BusinessLine.
Business leaders must be able to intentionally, and deliberately choose tough competitors to go up against. It raises their own game more than any internal, navel-gazing strategy would do. It raises their standards. It challenges their assumptions.
Take Nirma that went up against the mighty Hindustan Unilever or HLL as it was called. By deciding to go head-to-head with a giant, it grew from just a scrappy also-ran into a serious competitor which forced Unilever to rethink and reimagine its strategies and tactics.
Partners in progress
Once we change our perspective then there is no longer the angst when working with opponents. They become partners in our progress, not foes. We treat them with respect rather than animosity. In the just concluded Duleep Trophy final, West Zone skipper took the unprecedented step of sending off his teammate, Yashasvi Jaiswal. Jaiswal’s crime — excessive sledging of the opponent that had crossed a line.
As The Hindu reported, Rahane was clear, “You have to follow the rules, respect the game, the opponents and the umpires…it’s a team sport, it’s a dignified sport, you should respect your opponents.” It didn’t matter to Rahane that Jaiswal made a match-winning 265 for West Zone.
Bravo to Rahane for demonstrating how a different leader can lead. For having the courage to back his principles with action. We’ve had other captains whose treatment of an opponent was crude, crass and over-the-top. We need more of the Rahane breed.
What Federer and Nadal teach us with their storied rivalry is that they have grown to be better players often because of the other. Each lifted their game when the other was on the opposite court. Their 2008 Wimbledon final is often considered not just the best match they played against each other but the best tennis match ever.
Consider that they were literally through their respectful rivalry collaborators in each other’s progress. This is something we as business leaders must learn — starting from our days at B-school when a brilliant classmate is someone whose challenge, we should embrace rather than fear. Someone who inspires in us not jealousy but the motivation to do better.
Andrew Carnegie put it beautifully when he said that what he wanted on his epitaph was: “Here lies a man who was wise enough to bring into his service men who knew more than he.” The enlightened leader sees her opponent or competitor as a friend, not an enemy. She understands that by pushing against a stronger tide she will build her own muscle. She respects her opponent because she sees him as a growth partner whom she will harness, not an enemy to be vanquished.