Companies & Industries

The Art of Losing Well


Despite the sports aphorism, winning isn't the only thing. Accepting and learning from defeat can take you a long way

The din of voices calling for Hillary Clinton to give up her Presidential bid is growing louder by the day. Why does she continue to run when the odds of her winning the Democratic Party's nomination are so slim? Perhaps it's because she truly believes she is the best person to be the next President of the United States. Perhaps it's because she is convinced that, with continued determination, she can succeed at this formidable task. But the reason could be much simpler: She may consider losing to be a form of personal failure.

If that's her way of thinking, she clearly is not alone. We live in a culture that celebrates winners and chastises losers. "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" might well be the unofficial motto of this country. Indeed, everyone loves a winner, but losers are viewed with scorn and derision. This is more than unfortunate—it's unfair. We should rethink losing and embrace our losses, rather than run from them.

The Winning Mentality and Its Discontents

UCLA football coach Henry "Red" Sanders (who, by the way, coined the expression, not Vince Lombardi) was mistaken in holding winning to be "the only thing." No one would want to live in a world in which winning is our sole objective. There are other considerations that are as important, or more, than winning, whether the subject is football, corporate management, dating, or any other social activity.

Recall that there are five fundamental principles of ethics: Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others, Be Fair , and Be Loving.

If winning were truly the only thing, then there would be no problem with hurting other people, cheating, lying, or stealing to achieve your objective. As we've seen too often over the past several years, however, many politicians, chief executives, and athletes who have made a fetish out of winning at all costs have lost their careers, their marriages, their reputations, and sometimes even their freedom. The outrage over steroid use in baseball is fueled by the recognition that winning at the expense of fairness is just plain wrong. Getting rich by destroying the pensions of one's own employees is, as Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling showed, winning at its worst.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of winning, but if we ignore the ethical responsibilities of avoiding harm, being honest, and treating others fairly, we will forfeit the most important thing of all: our own integrity.

How to Lose with Grace and Dignity

With the above considerations in mind, I propose the following rules for rising to the challenge when you don't reach a goal:

1. Be Angry, But Not for Too Long. It's understandable to be upset when you lose, but dwelling on the loss, obsessing over it, or making it the focus of your life is more hurtful than helpful. In an earlier column, I offered five steps for dealing effectively with anger (BusinessWeek.com, 4/8/08), and as difficult as it may be to do so in every upsetting situation, it is in your own interest not to let anger get the best of you.

2. Accept Reality. We often tell ourselves, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Unfortunately, we have less control over our lives than we'd like to believe, and there is nothing we can do to alter this. All the determination in the world cannot make other people do, say, or vote for something if they don't want to. It should lessen the blow to realize that there is only so much we can do to affect the change we seek.

3. Look for the Lesson. Yes, we learn by winning. (Think about how you surprised yourself the last time you accomplished something you thought would be too difficult to achieve.) But we also learn by losing, if we have the courage to pay attention. In looking honestly at a failed attempt to get a job (BusinessWeek.com, 5/8/08), for example, or develop a romantic relationship, the lesson could be that we need to rethink our approach, or we need to change something about ourselves. The best way to succeed next time, or to learn how to handle defeat better, is to find the lesson from our loss and take it to heart.

4. Cut Yourself Some Slack. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: The ethical responsibilities to be fair and compassionate apply to how we treat ourselves, not just others. Berating yourself for losing isn't a kind or decent way to treat yourself, and doing so prevents you from getting back into action, which can lead to further losses.

5. Keep on the Sunny Side of Life. How many successful people do you know who are burdened by the weight of their past failures? If you let losing get the best of you, it will be all but impossible to go forward. Allow yourself to feel angry, but accept reality, learn from the experience, don't be too hard on yourself, and move on.

These guidelines are intended to help you make the best of a losing situation. Let's not forget, though, that the first order of business after losing is to congratulate the winner. Anyone can win. It takes a person of courage and grace to accept defeat and honor the victor. Such a person will move beyond loss and emerge a stronger and better person—and a true winner.

Weinstein is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His Ask the Ethics Guy! column appears every other week on BusinessWeek.com's Managing channel.

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