Bad winners and good losers determine what happens next

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Elections and football games have a way of making me think about winning and losing — along with bad winners and good losers.

In a world of wearying ambiguity, what could be more refreshingly decisive than what happens after ballots are counted and the game clock winds down? What could be more telling than the way victors and vanquished react? What could be more significant than what happens next?

It’s important enough to ponder the implications for politics and sports, but so much more so for those who compete in business. Some enterprises grow and thrive. Others wither and die. Some owners and managers excel. Others fail.

One way or the other, the same question awaits elected officials, athletes and especially businesspeople: What are you going to do about it?

Are you going to rest on your laurels or remain relentless? Are you going to writhe in the agony of defeat or summon the strength to get up and do what needs to be done to savor the thrill of victory? Winning isn’t everything. Neither is losing. What follows matters more, and the process looks a lot alike for winners and losers.

Let’s start with elections, a proverbial pillar of American governance in providing a way to decide between competing ideas and ensuring the peaceful transfer of power between contending factions. That remains the case, though, only so long as voters accept the results of elections they deem fair and transparent.

For better or worse, candidates lead by example. It’s not only a matter of whether or not losers are good, but also if winners are bad. Do losers dispute the outcome and blame others or focus instead on the next campaign? Do winners gloat and gleefully anticipate ways to abuse newfound power or focus instead on their responsibility to constituents?

Elections should offer clear choices. But once ballots have been counted, the partisan passions of the contest must give way to civil collaboration. The alternative is to accomplish nothing — except, that is, to further widen divisions. What was it Abraham Lincoln said about a house divided against itself? It cannot stand.

How about football? The importance of winning long has been a tenant of all sports, but is perhaps no more pronounced than in football. Consider the quotation most often attributed to UCLA coach Henry Red Sanders but most often associated with Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

In a contest between even the best football teams, though, there’s ultimately a winner and loser. Is winning still everything? Or, as American sports journalist Grantland Rice famously wrote:  “It’s not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” Even Lombardi was less unequivocal in a subsequent statement: “Winning is not everything —  but making the effort to win is.”

I personally prefer the advice of yet another prominent sports authority. Yogi Berra said this: “I tell the kids, somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Just don’t fight about it. Just try to get better.”

Here’s the point for winners and losers whether they’re campaigning, playing football or running businesses: Just try to get better.

Good winners realize they’re only as good as their last victory. There’s no time to rest or gloat. They’ve got to prepare for the next challenge. Otherwise, the outcome could prove far different.

Any advantage businesses once held with longevity and market dominance has disappeared in a time when technology and the Internet enable competitors to arise seemingly overnight to disrupt the marketplace. Successful businesses compete, evolve and adapt. The most successful businesses embrace competition and change as part of a continual improvement process.

Good losers also realize how quickly momentum could change  — if they persevere. If anything, failure constitutes a more instructive teacher than success.

Henry Ford considered failure the opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently. Thomas Edison added considerably to the admonition to those who fail to try, try again. In the midst of efforts to perfect the nickel-iron storage battery, one of his most profitable inventions, Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison also said this: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Bad winners and good losers determine in very different ways what happens next in politics, sports and especially business. What are you?

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at or 424-5133.