When I was a junior, I earned our high school’s coveted honor of being the only non-senior to start for that year’s varsity basketball team. I was not the best scorer; teammate Chris P. would go on to be a premier player for the Greece National Basketball Team. I was not the most athletic; Damon S. would become a feature running-back for an Oklahoma University National Championship football team. For our team, my role was to guard the other team’s best player (regardless of their position) and mind the little things that ensured our success.
As with many high school sports sagas, we played a late season game against our rival school. City bragging rights were on the line. Our’s was a back-and-forth game with tension equivalent to game 7 of a NBA Championship. With 42 seconds on the clock, our team led by 8 points when the other team’s coach called for a time-out. Court-side, our coach gave what I suspect to be the usual late-game instructions:
- “We can win this if we continue to play our game.”
- “Don’t foul.”
- “Keep your hands up on defense.”
- “Move your feet.”
I say “suspect” because I only remember being tired; DOG TIRED. Even to this day, I don’t like losing, and I really didn’t want to lose that game. I sat on the bench looking at the scoreboard, with the score and remaining seconds gleaming from across the court. Instead of listening to our coach, I ran scenarios in my head to determine if it was even possible for the other team to score 8 points in 42 seconds. I reasoned:
- They are going to inbound the ball; let’s say that takes 8 seconds. If they score, our lead goes to 6.
- We could take the full 10 seconds to bring the ball down the court. If we don’t score, our lead stays at 6 points with 24 seconds left.
- They take another 8 seconds to score; our lead is 4 with 16 seconds.
- Another 10 seconds for us to bring the ball down without scoring, our lead is 4 with 6 seconds remaining.
- Let’s say they score a Hail Mary shot in 6 seconds, we get the ball with a 1 point lead.
Just as I concluded for myself that there was no possible way for us to lose the game, the buzzer called us back onto the court. We only had to do what Coach told us, “Don’t foul, keep our hands up and move our feet.”
Our opponent’s plan was full of long passes and 3-point shots. They managed to cut our lead by 6 points in 38 seconds. With only 4 seconds remaining, they were in-bounding the ball. I looked at the scoreboard clock and imagined the only scenario for us to lose would be for them to score a 3-point shot. I looked for their best scorer; our future National Championship football player was all over him. Their shooter was not going to get the ball, let alone shoot or score.
I guarded their play-making point-guard Jimmy D. as he hurried the ball down the court. He shot from the top of the key, well outside of what was typical for him. I raised my hands to distract, but not close enough to possibly commit a foul. He scored to win the game. Jimmy D was carried off OUR court as the hero of the game.
For weeks, there was a lot of blame setting and second guessing. Was Chris P’s scoring not up to par. Did the coach make game-management errors. Was our team ill-prepared for the pressure of the school rivalry. I knew the answer and none of it lay with our star players, our coach or our game plan. I lost the game for our team; plain and simple. I had a leadership responsibility even if only for myself. We lost that day because I played not to lose; instead of playing to win.
I played a lot more high school games after that. We won some; we lost some. I even played a little bit in college. I think about that high school game frequently. In many ways, high school experiences can be metaphors for life and business.
Life and Business Implication: Just this week I attended a business strategy discussion. The task was to discuss how to renew a key customer contract. Key managers started the session by stating concerns that dominated the first half of the meeting:
- “We need to tell our senior leaders how important it is not to lose this customer.”
- “How will we respond to our competition’s claims and lucrative proposal?”
- “Can we convince the customer that our competitor’s competence is less than adequate?”
- “What is our contingency if we lose?”
Leaders in the room were playing “not to lose”. We were getting nowhere. Just like my high school experience, we were watching the clock and calculating how to manage risk. This level of problem solving limits thinking and unwittingly focuses everyone on the topic of “LOSING”. At about the halfway point, we shifted the focus of our discussion. New discussion topics were:
- What can we do better than anyone else?
- How could the customer achieve their goals with our support?
- How can we sell senior leadership on how big this business can be?
- What resources will set us up for a successful relationship for years to come?
Here’s the point: In life and business, there is value in understanding and hedging against risk. Having a contingency in case things don’t go according to plan is always prudent. The challenge is to make sure strategy is composed of more than merely protecting against bad things that could happen. To prevail requires a plan that is also driven by selling more, knowing more, running faster, or playing better than your competition. I have heard world class athletes say their best came when they stopped competing against others all together. They drove themselves to surpass internal standards of excellence. They wanted to know how good they could be every day. This is the role of a leader. They set the tone for how their team will compete. They provide confidence that a strategy will be successful. They enhance the team’s chance for success. Just like playing a high school basketball game against cross-city rivals; leaders should always play to win. Ask yourself:
- Are you playing to win; or are you watching the clock?
- Are you running as hard as you can; or has fatigue seduced you into conserving your energy?
- Are you looking for opportunities to score; or are you managing risk and assigning blame?
- Thirty years from now will you look back on today knowing “win or lose” you gave it your all; or will wish you could re-live the last 42 seconds?
The clock is ticking.