Healthy leadership competition

I think healthy competition is healthy. I also believe that there is a place for healthy competition in leadership. I’m not a fan of leaders setting up either false cultures of competitiveness that only purport to be a meritocracy or an environment where people are encouraged to tread over others to succeed. But, people who set goals and then work their socks off until they achieve them are usually good for business. 

This post will look at where within leadership competitiveness can be helpful to you and your organisation. It will also suggest where you will need to apply competitiveness carefully in order to maximise its power and manage its more destructive elements. Most importantly you can get a pointer as to where the most effective area is to direct all of your competitive drive: Namely, towards yourself. 

Healthy competition

I love competing. Apparently, I was born competitive. I knew at pretty early point in my life where I was a strong performer - sports. (Not so much the academic side!) I represented my country several times in one sport and had trials for England in another. I revelled in sport. I wanted to be the best and for a time was keen to beat anyone that I was competing against. It worked and I don’t regret a minute.

Being competitive taught me a good deal of lessons for life that can transfer directly to your leadership: 

  • The positive side of goal setting, planning and monitoring progress
  • The discipline and sacrifice required to achieve significant goals 
  • The importance of preparation
  • The fact that success is NEVER only down to you (thanks must go to my parents, wife, coaches etc) 
  • Being graceful in defeat and learning from it in order to be better next time

These are all really powerful ways that you and your organisation can benefit from you being more competitive in a work context as a leader. It will also be a great way to motivate your team. Build a culture with your team that is highly competitive and you become a force of nature in your organisation. Your direct reports begin to get recognised outside of the team, as being part of something special. You get recognition for developing them. The organisation gets better results too, as a direct result of your clear sense of competitiveness and drive. 

Unhealthy competition

Two key areas can be described as the ‘dark side’ of a competitive nature. Firstly, there is the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Secondly, there is the eternal trap of falling prey to perfectionism. 

The banking crisis of 2008 was the result of lots of errors. It is far too simplistic to suggest there was just one factor that caused the global financial meltdown. What has become clear however, is that there were failures of leadership. It is also clear there were organisational cultures in many banks that led to a ‘win at all costs’ approach, where shortcuts were taken; honesty was put on the back burner; people were ignored who should have been listened to. 

Similarly, the Russian Athletics Federation is currently on the brink of being banned from the Rio 2016 Olympics for the drug taking culture it seems to have promulgated amongst its athletes. High pressure to win, is not an excuse for leading a team of people to ignore the rules or to exploit individuals in an attempt to be victorious regardless of the cost. Systemic competition, something that can be helpful to you as a leader, is also something that needs to be regularly and carefully monitored: One team player stepping out of the boundaries can (and usually does) mess it up for everyone else. 

The other trap to be aware of is that of falling prey to perfectionism. There is no such thing as perfect. Nothing is perfect. Lots of things are excellent. Aim for excellence as it is enabling. Perfectionism is disabling. The former helps you to keep striving towards great performance. The latter eventually leads to giving up, never being satisfied and delivering results too slowly for the current workplace environment. Aim high. Aim really high. Compete to be excellent not perfect. 

No. 1 Competitor

Whilst you can certainly set up competition with pretty much anything or anyone there is only one place you really need to focus your competitive nature and that is towards yourself. You know what you are doing at each and every minute to achieve excellence and that makes it easy to set goals for being consistently better each and every day. There are a number of realms of your work life where you can compete with yourself every single day, in order that you are better today than you were yesterday: 

  • Relationships and Influence
  • Results: e.g. improving sales etc
  • Effectiveness of your team
  • Efficiency: e.g. reducing costs etc 
  • Role modelling being a great leader. 

The challenge is not finding areas to compete with yourself, it’s defining those fewareas  that are going to make the biggest difference for your organisation, your customers and your team. Whatever you do, decide. Set some goals and be relentless in your pursuit of your own goals. 

Competing against yourself helps you avoid the trap of comparing yourself with others which is ultimately a fruitless task. You need to beat yourself every day as your leadership is going to be defined in part by the most important results you bring about for your organisation. Every day. Every. week. Every month and year. 


Performance Edge develops great leaders and great teams. If you want us to achieve that for your organisation simply contact us here - we'd be delighted to help you. 

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John Lewis
Little Hearts Matter