When you look at the top sports stories, you find several tabloid-quality tales: athlete after athlete testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, bonuses paid for hurting opposing players, fighting, cheating, lying. The win is what matters, no matter the cost.
We focus, and our attention is purposely focused by the media, on the negative, the salacious, the ill-gotten victories. This is why we instantly recognize Lance Armstrong’s name but have never heard of a Spanish runner named Iván Fernández Anaya. It’s unfortunate because he has a lot to teach not only athletes, but every “competitor.”
Anaya competed in a race in Burlada, Navarre, Spain in December of 2012. He trailed leader Abel Mutai, a Kenyan who had won the bronze medal in the 3000-meter steeplechase in the London Olympics. Just 10 meters before the finish line, Mutai pulled up, believing he’d crossed it. Anaya saw this and immediately sped up, pouring all of his effort into catching up… but not passing. The Spanish runner communicated with his Kenyan counterpart using hand gestures, urging him to finish the last few meters.
Why? It would have been legal and perfectly reasonable if Anaya had used this mistake to his advantage. It would have been smart because a win would have secured him a place on the Spanish team for the European championships. But, says the second-place runner, “He [Mutai] was the right winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.”
It was right; it was that simple. Exploiting a mistake, to Anaya, was not “winning.” It was not a victory he wanted to claim. In business, as in sports, we often focus on the win. On doing things right rather than doing the right thing. If we see a colleague who is about to make a decision, do we hold back information so they make a poor choice and we get the advantage? Is that the kind of victory we want to claim?
But, we may say, work is a competition. If someone else wins, I lose. It becomes about winning, not working with integrity and fairness, or as part of a team. The individual puts him/herself first. For this to change, as leaders we must recognize and honour those who do step back and take second place, putting the needs of the team ahead of their own. The focus has to shift from winning at all costs to ensuring the team succeeds.
We tend to hear more of the bad stories than the good, and this is as true in business as it is in sports. But people do the right thing more often than we may think. We only hear about the scandals, or the heroes; the people who leap tall buildings in a single bound. But who enabled the heroes to leap those tall buildings? Who stepped back? Who kept them going those last 10 meters? These people deserve recognition as well.
It can feel like you’re “against” the people on your own team; Anaya and Mutai were competitors, but that did not stop them from acting ethically and doing the right thing. It needn’t stop us either.