Don’t get bitter, get better: Losing gracefully in business

July 30, 2012 – MANILA, Philippines – Michael Jordan didn’t win every championship. Brazil doesn’t always win the World Cup. Usain Bolt doesn’t win every 100-meter race.

Nobody wins all the time. Nobody. This is true in sports, in life, and certainly, for that matter, in business.

Losing, or failure, is necessary — for each of us as individuals, or organizations, for that matter, to grow. As has been said many times, “Success is a horrible teacher” because success breeds complacency, and even arrogance. Both of which make progress next to impossible. Failure is our greatest teacher, and hence necessary. Steve Jobs made this quite apparent in his famous speech at Stanford a few years ago, which was detailed in his latest biography. Jobs embraced his losses, was able to look back and “connect the dots” backwards on how those failures led him later to even greater successes.

How we as individuals or collectively handle defeat says a lot about our character, be it the person or the culture of a company. Failure is when we see the true, underlying nature of those in front of us. It is easy to be gracious and accommodating when drunken on success, but does the person or organization exhibit those same traits in a failure situation? This is the mark of character, of true honor.

Just as we as spectators scorn the “spoiled” athlete who loses poorly, displays fits of temper, and lashes out to deflect responsibility, we can also look with disdain upon those who don’t have the graciousness or honor to handle failure with dignity.

When we lose in business — and surely we all will if not so already — the only route that will benefit us is to look in the mirror. Take responsibility. Ask, “What could I have done differently?” and “What have I learned?” Make note of it. Ensure you don’t repeat the same mistake twice. The focus is pretty simple, and easy to remember: Don’t get bitter; get better.
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There is a “loser approach to losing,” which is what is termed in argumentation theory as “Argumentum ad hominem.” What this means is, “When you don’t like the fact you are losing, simply attack the other party unfairly.”

We all know how this goes. We all have seen it. Two people arguing a position in a meeting: one person is winning, has better rationale; the other person is losing. The loser, instead of perhaps admitting they lack logical ammunition, instead, out of ego or spite, attacks the other person. Maybe even references a non-relevant personal issue. This is argumentum ad hominem. When you are losing, you aren’t strong enough to handle it. So you try to neutralize it by undermining the other party.

Philosophers for centuries have ridiculed ad hominem arguments as the most morally reprehensible form of debating. And nothing could be truer. It’s a sign of weakness. Of broken moral fiber. Of a lack of honor, grace, or dignity.

The sad thing is, in today’s world we have made ad hominem the fashion. Just look at US politics and the upcoming presidential campaign. Every negative ad is an ad hominem argument. In fact, more is spent on ad hominem arguments than in saying what either candidate will do for America!

Just open any medium today and you will see it. You will certainly see it in business. Even here in Philippines. Let’s take the sin tax debate as an example. Any credible third party from the WHO, World Bank, IMF and a long list of NGOs says reforming sin taxes is right to do. And like anything else, when reform does pass, there will be “losers” who are unhappy about it. In life there are winners and losers! Now, the losers in this debate have chosen an ad hominem route ahead of the critical Senate vote. Instead of facing up to the issues, they engage in attacking new investors in the Philippines. Fanning the flames on irrelevant details, digging up dirt! They introduce inflammatory language to fear-monger and stir up heated emotions. They even resort to quoting lies. All to artfully deflect attention from the real issues of sin tax reform — how a monopoly has benefitted handsomely by low excise taxes at the expense of the Philippine nation. And how it is time to end. Reform must come.

And like the spoiled athlete kicking the water cooler in childish frustration, we too in the broad public smirk and scorn the small business leaders who engage in ad hominem arguments.

Don’t get bitter; get better. That’s what the real winners do.