This was the moment I was afraid of. The entire room was full of administrators around the district, and we had just finished taking a survey designed to reveal our greatest strengths as leaders. We each received a report of our top 5 leadership attributes. My #5 was an attribute I was well acquainted with, even though I’d hoped it wouldn’t show up. Competitive.
I’m seriously competitive. It’s in my bones. My wife and close friends know this about me. I cannot sit down to play a board game just for the fun of playing. I want to win. Even allowing my 5 year old to beat me in a game takes focus and concentration. I can’t imagine how losing on purpose sends the right message. We’re winners here. I’m not proud of it, but this competitive drive is as natural a part of how I function as it is for me to walk on two feet.
So now the facilitator of our leadership attributes conversation asks those in the room who have competitive as a core characteristic to stand up. There are nearly 50 people in the room, but only 3 of us stand up. This is going to end poorly, I think to myself. Then the facilitator points out there are two types of competitive people. Type one are those primarily concerned with their own performance and not one-upping anyone else. I’ll call them the benevolent competitors. Type two competitors are those who feed off of the glory of victory. It’s hard for them to watch others win. After the difference was clarified, the facilitator asked all but the type two competitors to sit down.
I was the only person standing in the room.
Standing there, by myself, I was asked a few more questions. Frankly, I wasn’t ready for this group of people who didn’t know me very well to see the depths of my competitive nature. I even tried to use some humor and an awkward no comment to deflect attention. Great, now everyone knows I’m a jerk.
In the end, that very public confrontation with a part of me that I have tried to minimize in my leadership practice left me in a very reflective mood. As I pondered the significance of my competitive spirit, I had something of an epiphany. Yes, I’m naturally competitive. I realized, however, that my natural inclination to victory has forced me over time to develop a very aware sense of the need to be humble. Unchecked, ambition easily distills into arrogance, and I’m constantly striving to stay grounded and live with a grateful spirit for the people around me. I also realized that my competitive furnace produces the fire necessary to teach and lead through the long cycle of the school year. I have an insatiable need to do good work, and that is a hunger that feeds those around me.
We often close ourselves from the hard feedback – the critique that lands hard because we know it is, at least partially, true. We convince ourselves that as leaders, we need to always appear polished and free of flaws. Perhaps ironically, it is our acknowledgment of our fallibility that makes us trustworthy. In the end, those we work with know well our weak spots, and the real danger is in refusing to see those spots for ourselves.