Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire who controls Formula 1 is a man who knows about winning. Bernie, who is so often good for quotes, once said:
Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.
Time and again winners talk about the 'winning whatever it takes' mindset, but I have already argued many times on this blog about how strong ethical values are so important for those who wish to achieve the greatest success. Can the two be reconciled? Can you be a winner without compromising your core values?
A case study here is Ben Ainslie, the British sailor who took the gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It's a classic example of the ruthlessness necessary to win. The Independent reported the events that happened as follows:
The points system meant that Ainslie did not actually have to win that finale, but merely ensure that his rival finished no better than 20th of the 45 starters. He succeeded, with a strategy which included blocking Scheidt at the rear of proceedings and inducing the Brazilian to commit infringements which resulted in penalties.
Ainslie had won the silver medal in Atlanta in 1996 losing out to the same rival, Robert Scheidt, who of course had taken gold. With Ainslie having trained with singular focus for the subsequent four years, he was not going to leave the result in Sydney to chance:
It was obviously the deciding race, a huge race with a lot of pressure and I decided to try to push Robert to the back of the fleet and force him to use his discard
Winning the race himself was no good for Ainslie given the way the points system worked, it was all about Scheidt who had to finish below 20th position. Accordingly, in his own words, Ainslie was...
...thinking ahead about the next tactical move and how you can best position yourself to make sure you inflict as much pain on the other boat as possible
It sounds a bit nasty really doesn’t it!
Some were upset by this approach and his methods were criticised by legendary runner Sir Roger Bannister, but Ainslie considers it thus:
Critics like him don't seem to understand the nature of the sport or the rules. Nor do they seem to understand how hard it is to pull off something like that
Ainslie's point here is that he didn't break the rules, he won gold, but stayed within the rules. He points out too that there was huge skill required to win in this fashion also. Show me a good loser...
Having started to read another sporting legend's book: Ross Brawn: Total Competition a similar point is made. With unrivaled achievements over a forty year period, Ross Brawn is the most successful team boss/engineer in Formula 1 history, described by the Wall Street Journal as a 'certifiable genius' and has proven that he is committed to winning but within an acceptable value system. Adam Parr, who co-authored the book describes Brawn's view as follows: define the line - and own it
The point is to understand the governance of your activity, define the line clearly for everyone, and then operate up to that line. Not a millimetre beyond what is acceptable, but equally not a millimetre short either. Any gap represents lost competitiveness and wasted opportunity.
We can see how that applies to Ainslie, and indeed to any competitive activity. Going a step too far, we have all seen those who have crossed an acceptable line such as Lance Armstrong, but Brawn I think gives the best definition of how to approach winning and stay true to an ethical values system - define the line and own it, and go not a millimetre beyond what is acceptable, but equally not a millimetre short either.