1+1=5: The Generative Effect of Healthy Competition

It’s football season – that quasi-religious American experience that pits school against school, city against city, neighbor against neighbor and even family member against family member for a veritable feast of competition all week long for months. Dinner table conversations, break room exchanges and media debates clock countless hours of strategy and analysis that have become what so many people love about the sport of football.

At its best, competition makes all competitors stronger. At its not-so-best, it can derail a sport – or a company – off the primary track to overall success. Consider corporate leadership – the “C-suite” of a company. Each member represents his or her own “team” on the gridiron of the company – sales, marketing, finance, PR, operations, legal – and each competes to some degree to have their voice heard, their ideas championed. When this competition is healthy, all individuals and teams are encouraged to do their best, and the company wins.

Now consider the athlete who clearly competes for himself, not for his team or even his sport – you know the kind. The showoff, prima donna and attention seeker who is not inclined toward humility, even it’s best for the team. Corporate leadership teams also have those kinds of competitors whose own stars may rise amid these antics. Meanwhile, however, the company suffers, as do relationships along the way.

A healthy competitive environment should be generative, helping everyone bring their best and encouraging everyone’s success. When you think about the impact an executive team has on the entire organization, it makes sense that productive competition and collaboration can have a positive cascading effect on the rest of the organization. Employees rise to the occasion and are more aligned if their leadership behaves in a way that encourages competition but respects the company.

As an individual leader, healthy competition can drive your team to be highly productive and inspired to do more. Healthy competition raises the bar and is focused on achieving a goal together, rather than personal recognition. You may have heard the expression, “1+1=5 when we work together,” or some version of it.  The truth lies in what’s possible when we use our competitive and collaborative skills to create success for ourselves and help others and the organization at large also achieve success. While an outstanding individual performance always merits recognition, leaders who realize that they and their teams are part of a larger whole are much more successful in achieving and sustaining results because they will win the hearts and minds of others. 

When you play on a team that strengthens its weakest link, that supports the success of each player, and competes to build strength, not to destroy, it’s truly a thing of beauty and much more sustainable than the alternative.  As you step into your leadership uniform today, think about what you need to know about your leadership approach and beliefs, and ask yourself how competition can be more generative and productive for you and your team.