It’s OK to want to win

Competitive woman

Competitive. That’s how the vast majority of the 400 female corporate executives, recently polled for a research report, see themselves. They consider competitiveness an asset to their leadership skills.

The report, Making the connection: women, sport and leadership, released last week by Ernst and Young's Women Athletes Business Network and ESPNw, revealed that executive women are more likely to have played competitive sports and more likely to hire candidates who have also participated in sports.

Almost all (94%) percent of the respondents say they participated in sport and close to three-quarters (74%) agree that a background in sport can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.

Close to two-thirds (61%) say that past sporting involvement has contributed to their current career success with more than two-thirds (67%) highlighting a background in sport as a positive influence on their decision to hire a candidate.

For girls, it seems, the race to the top of the corporate ladder begins well before their first job. It starts with competitive sport.

Yet, ask any parent of an elementary school child to describe the traits they are trying to teach their children, they mention compassion, teamwork, politeness and diligence. Competitiveness is not mentioned.  Why?

Is it the old stereotypes that girls shouldn't be fiercely competitive? Have we not moved beyond that era? Apparently not. But we should. The skill sets needed by female executives and doctors are many of the same skill sets that make great athletes. The determination, grit, focus, ability to drive oneself, teamwork skills, the ability to overcome adversity, come to mind as the most obvious traits. These come from playing sports and joining teams. But just playing and joining in is not enough.

Fortunately, competitiveness is a skill like any other that can be honed and encouraged. Competitive skills can be taught at high levels by skilled professionals. And in our current interconnected online teaching world, these skills can also be taught very inexpensively without the longstanding limitations of class, race or gender.  

So how can competitiveness be taught?

  • First by making it clear that success is admirable, that it is within reach, and is the pinnacle of achievement.
  • Second by studying what competitiveness means and how it can be utilized.
  • Third by rewarding competitive skills very early in a child’s development. This in part means eliminating the "participation" trophies and making winning important. Restoring the concept that “second is the first loser” may sound extremely harsh to many of today's parents but it will serve the future female executives very well.
  • Fourth by teaching the mental skills required to be a great athlete and/or executive, including the ability to find the mental flow that characterizes the supremely successful person.
  • Fifth by teaching people how to put themselves in a position to execute their best work while at the same time ensuring they have the skills required to manage failure. 
  • Sixth by incentivizing competitiveness and success by bringing more age-appropriate awards to sports and academics.
  • Seventh by restoring the importance of being the absolute best that you can be by measuring the potential of individuals.  By encouraging competition, we may come closer to revealing the true ability of each individual. We can tap into the quantified-self world and gather data on potential as well as performance, which may lead to early identification of sport-specific skills.
  • Eighth and finally, we can teach a sustainable approach to athletic or academic performance, that the best competitors never get too high and they never get too low but they fixate on the idea of getting a little bit better every day.

Clearly teaching and fostering competitiveness extends beyond the winners to all levels of success. Often the last-place athlete in one sport is the star of the next. Finding one’s sport can actually be the sport finding you. Being rejected by the volleyball team may put the shorter athlete into the gymnastics world. The too-tall ballet dancer may become the rower. It is the competitive fiber in them that drives the young athlete to win somewhere. That skill is what creates successful people at all ages. 

So compete. Teach kids how to compete. Foster competition. Embrace the outcome. If we evolve as a community to develop continuously more talented, more successful, more adaptable women, the world will prosper. 

Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.