Between 1999 and 2006, Lance Armstrong won first place in the prestigious Tour de France an amazing seven consecutive times. But then, once officials discovered he did it illegally, his victories were canceled. So is Armstrong a winner or isn’t he? And what exactly does it mean to be a “winner”?
I puzzle over this question quite often, because I work in the field of conflict resolution. Many conflicts I deal with are bitter and drawn-out primarily because each side is trying to be “the winner”. It’s not really so much about determining the truth of the situation, or doing what’s right, it’s about winning. And that can be time-consuming and extremely expensive.
What I’ve discovered is that there are often substantive and generally resolvable issues at the heart of most conflicts. But once the parties involved become focused on winning, everything becomes much more difficult.
I once was involved in a case where two women were in conflict. They had been in and out of court in a series of suits and counter-suits for over two years. Whoever lost a case would file a new suit, in an effort to get back on top. It was a classic case of each one trying to be the overall “winner.”
The key to resolving the conflict was to shift the focus from “winning” back to the real, substantive issues that were involved. Once I did that, we completely resolved the whole dispute within an hour!
Winning. The hunger to win can be very corrosive, and, as in the case of Lance Armstrong, ultimately self-defeating.
Coincidentally I had lunch a few days ago with a friend of mine, a professor at UCLA. After lunch, on our way back to his office, he suggested that we take a look around the John Wooden Center.
John Wooden was the head basketball coach at UCLA for many years and had an absolutely astonishing career. He won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, seven in a row! And during that time his teams won a record 88 consecutive games, and he was named National Coach of the Year six times! His accomplishments were unprecedented.
There is an inspiring 20-minute video at the Center, giving some of the highlights of Wooden’s life and career. The video shows several interviews with the players on his different teams. One of the things they all said was that Wooden never talked about winning and never urged his players to win! Instead, he urged them repeatedly to do their best. And the question he always asked his players after a game was, “Did you do your best?”
So in trying to decode the mystery of winning, we have Lance Armstrong, who was obsessed with winning, but ended up losing everything. And on the other hand we have John Wooden, whose goal was not to win, but simply to do his best, and who ended up as one of the most winning coaches in all of sports history.
Lance Armstrong, meet John Wooden.