Are they playing well?

December 18, 2008

MadoffBlagojevich and now Denmark’s Stein Bagger. A month ago I wouldn’t have recognized, nor known how to spell, these names. Today, however I believe I can include them in a post with no explanation. The cast of characters in our new global drama expands weekly as a widening swath is cut to reveal what lay underneath our financial abundance. Here’s a short clip to dish up a visual metaphor:




The charges of corruption, deception and run away greed are not considered good operating strategies by any culture I have studied. Yet, before the latest revelations, we might have seen these leaders as top players in finance and politics. They were successful. Famous. Powerful. Made themselves and others lots of money. They were adept, quick and creative. Some might have said that these guys were “playing well” in their selected field.

Madoff, Blagojevich and Bagger’s alleged actions help me to further clarify what the tag line “playing well” means from a cross-cultural perspective. To what should we aspire and what should guide our actions?  Two seeming paradoxes appear when I seek to explain how to play well: 

1)    It’s not if you win, but it is all about winning and losing.

2)    It’s not how well you play, but it’s all about the strategies you employ.

It’s not if you win, but it is all about winning and losing. When we play well we are not focused on winning at all costs. When I am willing to forgo my internal or universal values, even if I have won, I lost. The treasure at the end is seductive, but I have yet to find an example where the bounty is worth what is exacted internally. Sounds preachy, but this is also practical for self-survival. By no longer following the base code of conduct for our tribe, we effectively cull ourselves from the herd. For example, abiding by the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as a lawyer, I would have the legal community standing behind me if I were to be questioned. Focused on winning at all costs and betraying those rules, I would find few watching my back.

It’s not how well you play, but it’s all about the strategies you employ. When I started studying conflict resolution, my initial interest was to be graceful under pressure. Frankly, I wanted to “look good” when times were bad. It didn’t take me long to realize I had chosen the wrong goal. Studying those who truly played well, I noticed that they were focused instead on learning and finding solutions that would support the greatest whole. Those who play well often get to look good as a byproduct, but that is not the accomplishment they seek.

In my experience, the top players’ objective is to seek a solution where all can win. Sounds lofty, but again it is very practical. Since you are in the community, you win too. Also, if I’m working for your good, and I abide by a solid code of conduct to get there, you will probably stand behind me if I am ever in trouble. The bigger net we cast, the larger community within we then reside and are nurtured. Win-win solutions can appear to be impossible, yet even in the seeking we plant seeds for future opportunity. An obvious example is Martin Luther King playing well forty years ago and creating new paradigms that are still emerging today. When we play well, we take care of not only our community and ourselves, but potentially generations to come. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

Related Posts