Recently, Business Insider has been running profiles of the world's most competitive athletes. But it isn't a sports site. So have they lost their collective editorial minds?
Alas not. They're recycling one of the oldest business metaphors in the book: business as sport. Companies and executives compete. They keep score avidly. They win or they lose. So, by analogy, it ought to be that we can learn a lot about business success by studying a wildly successful sportswoman, right?
Wrong. Executives who want a real career, to build a real business, follow Williams's example at their peril.
What are the characteristics of Williams's "insane competitiveness"?
She abuses her rackets. If this is supposed to be great for her tennis playing, it certainly wouldn't be successful behavior in business. Although many companies, through cost-cutting and over-zealous efficiency drives have been known to wear out their people and their machinery (the BP disaster at Texas City was one such case) these extremes carry high costs: loss of reputation, loss of revenue, loss -- in some cases -- of the right to trade. It is true that bullies persist in business -- I've worked for more than one -- but research shows that hyper-competitive people do very poorly in business and in life. Nobody likes to be around them.
She abuses judges. Although many CEOs volubly express their frustration with the SEC, with Washington and with Wall Street, few would survive venting in public. Accused of rigging the U.S. stock market through flash trading, William O'Brien did himself no favors at all by claiming that author Michael Lewis operated on bad faith and was 'insane'. Williams's tirades may make for good theater, they'd make for early retirement in business.
She abuses fellow competitors. We all know people like this at work: the gossips and the whiners who endlessly maintain that they are geniuses and everyone else slackers. Nobody wants to work with these people and they don't produce great results because their co-workers either ignore, avoid or subvert them. Great and innovative companies swiftly eliminate blockers like this because they constrain everyone else's contributions. Why didn't anyone step up to help Lehman Brothers when it was in trouble? At least one reason was because It was too satisfying to watch Dick Fuld fail.
She refused to be her opponent's mentor. In business, if you want to have a very long and glorious career, you help people. That's the gist of Adam Grant's wonderful book Give and Takeand it's what you will hear inside any genuinely creative company. I've mentored executives younger and older than myself and I couldn't say who's benefited most: we've all thrived by helping and being helped.
Her temper tantrums are legendary and, by implication, part of her success. See all the above. I've seen great business negotiators with little to spend and little time to craft a great deal -- and they succeed through keeping their cool. Discipline, reflection, mindfulness and critical thinking are the hallmarks of outstanding innovators and leaders. For contrast, take my hyper-competitive father: an oil executive whose firm couldn't wait to get ride of him.
She imagines no one can threaten her. This is what you might call willful blindness. Of course others threaten her dominance -- and more will as she gets older. So this isn't really championship behavior. Now it is certainly true that many business leaders have been guilty of willful blindness: bankers that imagined their risky strategies were safe, economists who imagined the era of boom-and-bust had been laid to rest; managements that overlooked faulty components and media bosses who never questioned how their scandal-provoking news items were obtained.
Her focus on tennis, to the exclusion of anything else throughout her life, has been absolute. This must be the number one wrong rule in business. It's tempting to imagine that the way to get ahead is to work every waking hour and to maintain rigid focus. But real life shows us the opposite. Long term studies into office workers shows that working eleven or more hours a day at least doubles the risk of depression. Working 55 hours a week or more induces cognitive loss, so that problem-solving and reasoning become weak. By contrast, creative and critical thinking are enriched by mind-wandering, by rest, by sleep and by broad enough experience of the world to bring together different kinds of knowledge.
I would argue that no only is sport not a good metaphor for business -- it is an especially pernicious one. Seeing business as a matter purely about winning and losing may be one reason why so many companies today are extremely short term, more concerned for the immediate 'score' than the long term value of the business. The allure of the stock price as a nice simple measure of achievement is particularly misleading. In the 42 out of 46 quarters that Jack Welch ran GE, he hit his forecast to the penny. This is statistically implausible, suggesting what Roger Martin (until recently Dean at the Rotman School of Management) called 'gaming the game.'
And here's the rub: the only area in which the analogy between sports and business might indeed hold water is in the propensity both have shown in recent years to cheat and manipulate results. Athletes dope and cheat - while we've seen too many business people cheat and manipulate markets, all imagining that a quick big win is the ultimate goal. What's more telling perhaps is the aftermath for elite athletes: their early and long retirements are characterized by high divorce rates and early death, signs - if we needed them - that what works in sport doesn't work in real business.
That doesn't mean, alas, that the sports metaphor doesn't work. It may mean that it works too well: that hyper-competitive leaders fail just the way their heroes do.
Margaret Heffernan's new book A BIGGER PRIZE is out now.