A recent online chess charity competition was in the news for the wrong reasons. Celebrities and business leaders had gathered to battle with the world chess champion Viswanathan Anand. Clearly, even accomplished players among them were only there to show their support for the cause not to win — after all you were playing a world champion. But surprise, surprise one business leader actually beat Vishy. This surprising news became disturbing news when it turned out that he had taken professional help of analysts and other chess champions to help him make his moves — in effect, counter to all his claims to the contrary — he cheated.
I’ve actually admired this business leader for pioneering an innovative business model and kickstarting an important trend but hearing of this raised several red flags. He had prized a public victory over a private one. There would have been nothing wrong at all — in fact quite the opposite — if he had slogged it out in learning and training for months before the clash and beaten Vishy fair and square. That is the right sequence — first the private victory then the public one. But instead by not playing fair, he did his own reputation damage and sullied a charitable initiative. When we don’t play fair, we risk much as leaders.
When we prize the public adulation and acclaim too much, we risk taking shortcuts, we risk cutting corners. The private-victory-before-the-public -one approach demands patience, it demands the marathon not the sprint. When we don’t play fair, we get into the habit of focusing on the rewards without earning them. As one leader I interviewed this past week said: “young leaders should understand that it is about the journey, not just the goal.” It is the journey of playing hard, playing fair that creates the real reward of personal growth, the value of integrity and the willingness to earn your stripes.
When we take short cuts and win, we start getting cocky. We replace ability with hustling and therefore we stop growing, we stop learning, we stop building our skills. Watching Eddie Felson (Paul Newman with an Oscar winning portrayal) in The Color of Money we see this journey. He is the pool-playing-legend turned ultimate hustler, and he mentors Vincent Luria (Tom Cruise) training him to combine talent and ability with the money-scalping hustle at the pool table. (Spoiler Alert) But the movie ends with Eddie walking away from a win and deciding to go back to the excellence and ability that made him a legend.
As students we will face the temptation to copy in an exam, to outsource our project work, to plagiarise a presentation paper. If we give into these temptations, we may win the immediate contest, but we would have lost the one that matters — the journey to growth and genuine leadership. It is better to get your compass right before you start drawing your map.
In his book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Donald Trump , sportswriter Rick Reilly highlights the link between how you play and how you lead. “ If you’ll cheat to win at golf, is it that much further to cheat to win an election? To turn a Congressional vote? To stop an investigation? If you’ll lie about every aspect of the game, is that much further to lie about your taxes, your relationship with Russians, your groping of women?” Reilly relates incident after incident to show how all that Trump cared about was winning. Playing fair to get there is not part of his mix. And clearly the way he was on the golf course, was the way he was in the White House. Just to play fair — even a Democratic President demonstrated this tenet in action. Bill Clinton was known for pushing and crossing the boundaries of fair play on the golf links. It was therefore predictable when he cheated on his wife and failed to uphold the dignity of the highest office.
The savviest fund managers know this truth. For a recent IPO, a fund manager called me up to ask, not about the profitability or operational efficiency of the organisation but about the integrity and trustworthiness of the leadership. Almost every fund manager knows that personal lack of fair play from leaders will eventually show itself in a penchant for dressing up the books and governance failures that could turn what on the surface looks like a great investment into a dud.
It’s an illusion for leaders to think they can compartmentalise their values. They can’t play unfair and lead fair. Many a CEO has invited prospective candidates for an important hire, to a game to see how they play. Their interest is not on whether they win but on how they play. How do they react to a bad stroke or bad shot, who do they blame, how do they keep score, how do they handle a defeat? As author Elmer G Letterman put it: “A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure until he says that someone pushed him.” These are the insights that the playing field throws up. It helps predict the behaviour and attitudes in the cubicles and conference rooms of the workplace.
Culture of distrust
Once the team sees a leader not playing fair, they may laugh at that moment, but in their hearts, they will lose trust. Other team members will see it as a licence to do the same. As the saying goes — “There’s never only one cockroach in the kitchen.” A dishonest leader will create a dishonest organisation. The same CEO from the chess incident, had a few weeks before, made provision for his co-founders and himself to receive a salary up to a ₹100 crore — ludicrous by all standards and yet it falls into place in the context of the I-will-win-at-all-costs approach in the charity chess game.
Leaders are responsible for creating culture. A culture of fair play or a culture that prizes the end justifies the means. As Cameron Bancroft, the Australian cricketer enmeshed in the ball-tampering episode, confessed in a press interview: “The decision (to tamper with the ball) was based around my values, what I valued at the time, and I valued fitting in…you hope that fitting in earns you respect and with that, I guess, there came a pretty big cost for the mistake.”
It’s your values that create these choices and when we value the wrong things that’s when we cross the line into not playing fair. The ball-tampering incident was in fact a symptom of the culture that had grown within the team — a win-at-all-costs culture, that was bound to spawn incidents like this. Part of the clean-up that the Australian Cricket Board had to do was acknowledge this pernicious culture and jettison the leaders who valued and nurtured it.
Handling this right begins by leaders arriving at the right definition of winning. When you don’t play fair — sometimes even when you win, you have lost. And when you do play fair — sometimes even when you lose you really have won.