To strive together to achieve a goal, we may never know a more noble role.

The archetype of the Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci excelled at many disciplines including painting, sculpture, architecture, and engineering to name just a few. In 1483, he created one of the first and most famous designs for the precursor of today’s helicopter, commonly referred to as the “aerial screw.” Made from reed, linen, and wire, his invention was designed to compress air to obtain flight through the unique spiral shape of its sail. While da Vinci’s model would not have been able to take flight due to weight constraints, he nevertheless provided inspiration for future designers.

It was during the Italian Renaissance that da Vinci and his counterparts fanned the flames of competition in the arts. They introduced the concept of paragone, which means that one art form—be it sculpture, painting, or design—was perceived as being superior to others. This concept evolved into monetary contests sponsored by wealthy patrons, where the artists themselves were in direct competition with one another. Far from hindering creativity, the act of one artist having to compete directly with another artist was encouraged. Da Vinci wrote:

You will be ashamed to be counted among draughtsmen if your work is inadequate, and this disgrace must motivate you to profitable study. Secondly a healthy envy will stimulate you to become one of those who are praised more than yourself, for the praises of others will spur you on.1

The word compete originates from the Latin competere, meaning “to strive together.”2 To compete means to strive toward a goal. In attempting to reach the goal, we strive with others seeking that same goal, which supplies the motivational catalyst for us to try harder. Back in 1921, Charles Schwab was the president of the United States Steel Company. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie recounts one of Schwab’s noteworthy leadership moments during a visit to an underperforming steel mill. In steelmaking, each complete melting operation produces what is called a heat. As the day shift was about to head home, Schwab asked how many heats they had completed during their shift. The answer was six. In chalk, Schwab wrote a six in the middle of the factory floor. When the night shift arrived, they asked what the number meant, and they were told that it was the number of heats produced by the day shift—and that Schwab himself had written it. Not to be outdone, at the end of the night shift, the evening workers had completed seven heats, and changed the number on the floor to reflect their hard day’s work. Naturally, the day shift came in and the game was on. Soon, the plant was one of the most productive in the company.

Whether it was thousands of years ago during the Ancient Olympic games in Greece, hundreds of years ago during the Italian Renaissance, or this past century in American business, competition has motivated individuals to higher levels of performance. In fact, research shows that in the arts, athletics, and academics, the act of competing helps most people perform at a higher level.3 In their intriguing book Top Dog, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman summarize their findings on competition when they write, “The real benefit of competition is not winning—it is improved performance. Competition liberates, or generates, hidden reserves of additional effort. Competitors discover an extra gear.”4

This motivational aspect of competition is even stronger when people know that they are just slightly behind those they are competing with. An analysis of data from 60,000 basketball games, including 18,000 National Basketball Association (NBA) games, found teams that were losing by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point at halftime.5 Following a similar theme, professor Jonah Berger of the Wharton School of Business conducted research with people who believed they were competing to make the fastest keystrokes on a keyboard with someone in another room. Halfway through, the participants were given feedback indicating if they were ahead, even, slightly behind, or far behind. When the participants finished and the data was tabulated, professor Berger concluded, “The results were clear. Effort increased dramatically only for people who believed they were slightly behind in the competition.”6 Winning in any endeavor is often a result of competing to one’s maximum potential. And as a leader, isn’t that precisely what you’re trying to help your people do: perform to their full potential?

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