09/20/23 | Leadership

Winning the competition against yourself

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Simone Biles, the US gymnast who famously left the 2021 Tokyo Olympics voluntarily, recently returned to competition and won the 2023 US championship. Biles is an amazing example of how our ultimate competition is with ourselves. To compete with ourselves we must learn how to influence ourselves so our best instincts can triumph over our circumstances.

Biles was heavily criticized for removing herself from the Olympic competition. People wondered if she was being too easy on herself. After all, don’t top athletes have to be tough in order to win? Her American fans and the media had held high expectations of the seven-time Olympic medalist that were painfully dashed.

But the decision wasn’t a question of her lack of toughness. She was suffering from a debilitating case of the “twisties” that made it physically dangerous for her to stay in the competition.

As an intense competitor myself, I know how hard it is to face the reality of not being able to rise to the occasion. Admitting failure to ourselves is the toughest battle.

This demonstrates the three battles we all face when competing with ourselves: competition between our persona (who we think we should be) and our true self, the competition between fear and hope, and the competition between trying and giving up.

  1. Persona vs. true self: It must have been incredibly hard for Biles to hear the expectations, much less listen to those she put on herself, under the enormous pressures for a second Olympic win. But clearly she knew deep inside that she wasn’t up to the competition. She could have tried to continue her Olympic champion persona but at great personal risk.
  2. Fear vs. hope: In making this very difficult decision, she must have faced much fear — fear of what people would think of her, fear regarding whether she could ever come back from this, fear that she was taking the easy way out. Indeed, these are relevant fears we should examine in a similar situation. Yet, in deciding to have a managed retreat, she must have also had hope to survive another day where she could come back at her best.
  3. Keep trying or give up: It’s hard to discern whether retreat is in fact a wise course of action, or whether we should keep the battle going. An important distinction is to know whether we’re acting out of rational fear versus emotion and identity needs. We need to ask ourselves: what course of action serves our own and others’ productivity, satisfaction, and growth, even at the cost of losing face or giving up some ground? The overall war is more important than a single battle. Even if the fears were to come true, they don’t last forever, as Simone’s comeback shows.

How does this apply to people in the business world?

Consider your leadership and technical skills before accepting a promotion or project.

In spite of sophisticated methodologies for talent development, most promotions are a result of having performed well in your job. While it isn’t easy to predict how well you’ll do in an expanded role, you can start by asking a few basic questions: how are the leadership, skills, and knowledge required by the new situation different from what I’m used to? Is the change incremental or structural? How far will I be pushed outside of my comfort zone? How does that make me feel? How willing am I to go so far? Talking through these questions with someone who can both challenge and support you helps ground you in your expanded role.

Undertake any acquisition based on reality as opposed to nice-sounding synergies.

The term “winner’s curse” exists for a very good reason. In finance, it’s a well-documented phenomenon that people who win bidding wars for companies and/or pay a significant premium to acquire companies end up destroying value. Why is this, and how do you avoid expensive investments that are really just trophy projects? Oftentimes it’s a matter of keeping one’s ego in check — the persona of being the winner (acquirer). Instead, if you want to make deals work successfully, you need a deep understanding of the challenges required to make it work, especially among people who think, feel, and act differently, and be prepared to put in the hard work of influencing these people.

Push yourself beyond physical and mental limits.

We’ve all been beneficiaries of service providers or first responders who make enormous sacrifices to put our needs before theirs. But their actions often come at an enormous cost. The cultures of some professions involve machoism, a normalcy for long, intense hours, or an expectation of being martyrs at all costs. It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge to ourselves that, in fact, we don’t want to have to live up to these unrealistic expectations. Choosing work that we can perform successfully on our own terms without compromising our own sanity can be a courageous choice.

Biles also describes another battle that we must win against ourselves — accepting others’ help. She says, “It’s really important to use that support system and know they’re there for you and not against you, because at the end of the day, us as humans, we hate asking for help. We think we can do it on our own, but sometimes we just can’t. So use every outlet given to you.”

Huijin Kong

Huijin Kong

Huijin Kong is Principal of LinHart Group, working with CEOs and future CEOs on their most difficult professional and personal issues. She was formerly with McKinsey, working with MNCs and local companies in the US, China, and India. Her new book with co-author Tsun-Yan Hsieh is Positive Influence: The First and Last Mile of Leadership (World Scientific Publishing Company, June 28, 2023).

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