Business books and start-up blogs often talk about learning how to win. But they all neglect an important leadership quality — learning how to lose. This quality was put in focus with Donald Trump. Despite losing both the popular vote and the electoral college, he refuses to concede.
If only Trump could have learned from Senator John McCain who gave one of the most gracious and statesmanlike speeches by a losing candidate in recent memory, when he conceded to President Obama. When the crowd booed Obama as McCain conceded, he signalled to them not to. He sang Obama’s praises, declared his admiration, expressed his joy at the history he knew America had created by electing its first black President. He urged all his supporters to not just congratulate Obama but support him in building a new America together. What a refreshing breath of real leadership, what a demonstration of character.
Trump on the other hand is an example of a ‘leader’ who has not learnt to lose. He ends up damaging the organisation – in this case the country - he is supposed to lead and erodes all the convictions and principles the country was built on. Part of this tendency comes from his business days. Losing is a bad word in business but it should not be for business leaders. Why not?
When you lose, you can learn and grow
As Bill Gates would say: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.” Winning makes us feel good, but it is losing that often teaches us. Losing forces us to reflect, to be more self-aware, to examine strengths and weaknesses. When we win we are too busy basking in the glory, to focus on growth. But in the shade of a loss — often alone — many lessons are learnt that help strengthen us for the next challenge that comes up.
Losing builds the resilience-muscle like winning can’t. Losing forces us to ask ourselves the question: “Do you have what it takes to bounce back?” Losing often shows us the limits of present strengths and capabilities. It nudges to build new ones. It shows us blind spots we ignored. I remember one big pitch we lost, where we focused more on selling our service than on listening to the customer’s needs. So we lost out on all the insights that would have helped us fashion a winning pitch. It taught me and my team to listen more and jabber less.
Neha Aggarwal Sharma, one of India’s leading table tennis players at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, gives us a hard won insight when she says “The biggest lesson sport teaches you is how to lose.” ( The Hindu , Nov 24, 2020). Wise words. One is reminded of Kane Williamson, the New Zealand cricket captain after England was declared winner in mildly controversial circumstances at the 2019 World Cup. He qualifies as a winner-leader because of the grace with which he dealt with losing — no whining, no blame game, no looking for excuses, just a ‘tough luck’ reaction and a determination to move on.
Fear of losing can cause us to compromise
When we are too attached to winning, we can sometimes be tempted to take short cuts. To compromise on values and principles. As the ‘Donald’ has consistently done, breaking every rule in the book to try, casting aside every tradition of decency, every ounce of grace - to try and steal a victory. When a loss is round the corner, leaders unused to losing start doing ‘un-leaderlike’ things. Sales heads look at ways to ‘influence’ the buyer when they see a loss coming up. Sometimes they undercut price to the point that it becomes a disaster for their own organization. Everyone can see it’s a bad deal but the leader is so unwilling to lose that he refuses to let go. The deal is won, but often the losses run deep. The organisation bears the costs and consequences of their vanity. When one leader has missed out on a promotion to another, there are months of badmouthing, gossiping and cold shouldering.
I remember participating in the Hyderabad marathon and seeing some parents and their children jump across the road divider and start on the road back to the finish line, so they could get ahead of their friends. They were having a good laugh, but I was aghast at the lesson those parents were teaching their children - that a win mattered more than winning the right way. What they needed to teach them was that losing after giving it your all was just fine. The other mistake when handling the young is parents, teachers, professors, bosses dishing out praise for mediocre efforts. Making the young aspiring leader feel like he’s won but when he really hasn’t given it his all. As one writer castigated his favourite team, “They were rising to the top, without hitting their heights.”
This leads to what Gloria Clemente (Rosie Perez) refers to in the movie White Men Can’t Jump,“ Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win.”
Losing is a step in the path to success
Baseball legend Babe Ruth would say: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” A strike, of course, is when you miss the ball. But for Babe Ruth losing was a step closer to winning. In fact, it was an integral part of the process of winning. Every ball he missed helped him get better and better at the balls he did hit. He led the American League in strikeouts five times and accumulated 1,330 of them in his career.
With the fear of losing gone, the leader already has the attitude of a winner. She is willing to give it her all, she is willing to take a little more risk. It won’t matter if a target is missed or a deal lost, she will keep persevering, keep improving. A loss doesn’t destroy her, it builds her up.
Think about Rovio, the company that created Angry Birds. Global success story? Yes. Instant hit? Wrong. Between 2003, when they began, to 2009 when Angry Birds became a runaway hit, they had 51 games! None of which were successful. Think about the Rovio team going through loss after loss after loss. They could have stopped after the tenth game failed, or the 35th game failed. But they didn’t and somehow each loss in some way prepared them to get it right with No:52.
The leader has the twin responsibility of not only handling the loss well, herself but helping the team navigate those losses in a constructive way. Through her own attitudes, example and communication she needs to give her team ‘permission to fail’. With that comes the licence to innovate, to take risks, to ask naïve questions that could lead to transformative answers.
So as counter-intuitive as it sounds, learning to lose is a leadership skill. We eventually discover that it is not the wins and losses of our careers that define us. How we deal with wins and losses — that is what will define us.