The Myth of the Single-Minded Metaphor

The Myth of the Single-Minded Metaphor

Ruth Johnson argues that sporting metaphors in business fall short when they obsess with single minded goal-setting.  Real success is not just about achieving your goals; it’s about taking people with you and enjoying the ride as well.

It seems a long time ago now … but, boy, how I loved watching the 2018 World Cup.  And who knew?  Who knew that I would find myself sucked into the collective euphoria and pain, conjoined with compatriots who, day to day, I would otherwise not notice or choose to ignore?  England – the team and the country – felt good.  Punching the air as Harry Kane scored again, whooping, high fiving, singing “it’s coming home” …boy, how I loved watching the 2018 World Cup.

And then it was all over and we were back to work and business as usual.

I found myself reflecting on the emotions that following ‘our team’ had stirred.  There is something very fundamental about football and, indeed, pretty much any team sport.  There is kinship, endeavour, discipline, and pursuit.  At least – you hope there is.  Perhaps it’s just an assumption we make; I’m not sure it follows that you always see kinship and discipline on the pitch.  I’m never interested in watching a disconnected team; big star players moving around each other like islands, a gum-chewing manager effing and jeffing and sulking in the dugout, fake falls and dives and handbags at dawn …  Well, the England team weren’t like that.  And Gareth Southgate, complete with old style tie and waistcoat, and his own, very public story about penalty shootouts … How could you not get behind these battling young troops and their dignified commander in chief?  When we failed to achieve our goal – to beat Croatia and make it to the finals – we felt gutted.  As a country, we dipped, for a while, as the visceral hurt made us retreat to lick our wounds.  And then we picked ourselves up, brushed ourselves down, and started planning for our victory in 2022.

As a spectator, who enjoyed most of the games from the comfort of my sofa, with a glass of rosé and some salty pretzels in hand, I derived extraordinary satisfaction from the World Cup.  More than satisfaction; at times I felt pure joy; I felt ‘lifted’ by the possibilities that the tournament presented.  Every game we played, I believed we would win.  More importantly, I hoped we would win.  It mattered.  I watched with friends and family who felt the same way.  Our political and philosophical views might vary – and generally expose us to fallout and conflict – but our unity around team sport, when it offers us a collective sense of achievement, is a wonderful and precious thing.  It’s at the heart of social wellbeing, I believe, and long may it be so.

Sport, though, as a metaphor for business wellbeing, isn’t always well applied.  The reason for this is that the focus of the metaphor can sometimes be elitist and alienating.  Where performance coaches, working with business leaders, draw their metaphors from games like golf or tennis, they under-estimate the importance of the midfielders in helping you to score your goal.   The midfielders will be the senior managers who need to work with you to fulfil your strategy.  There is no point you heading off on a pleasant enough (though rather introverted) game of golf and expect that everyone around you is happy to play the role of caddy.  It’s just not that compelling …  If your midfielders (and, for that matter, your defenders and your attackers) also think the trophy is worth fighting for then not only do you stand a better chance of winning, but you also stand a better chance of enjoying the game as it is played.  I have seen far too many business leaders taken down the analogous path of the solo player.  It’s seductive, I’m sure, to compare yourself to Andy Murray, but unless you embrace the solipsism that it’s lonely at the top, then this is a misguided metaphor.

In our dialogue with business leaders over the years, and in our recent research work, have found, time and again, thematic reference to what you might call ‘the pursuit of happiness’ at the heart of organisational strength and wellbeing.  It’s a great thing to strive for and we argue that happiness at the top is not something that should be sacrificed, intentionally or otherwise, if a business as a whole is to thrive.  We challenge business leaders, when they are shaping their professional goals, to allow themselves to think about their personal wellbeing in the mix.  Who are the people around you who can help you to maintain your wellbeing?  How will they do this?  What are you going to do to ensure that working feels good for you, as well as for all your staff?  If, one day, you find yourself counting your shekels and thinking “didn’t I do well” – that’s great.  But if you’re counting those same shekels and thinking “didn’t I do well … considering all the crap I have to put up with day in day out”, then perhaps this isn’t the definition of success. 

If it seems like you’re in this on your own, you probably are.  If your people aren’t pulling with you and you are surrounded by conflict and games of appeasement could it be time to think again?  Time to drop that putter and take up a ‘team sport’ instead?

Once you’ve got your management team onside with your goals, you’ll instantly be lightening your load.  Next job is to interrogate your values, and be sure that these are shared too.  (Incidentally, when I say values, I’m not suggesting some virtue signalling list of good qualities you want other people to believe apply to you; values are the things that really matter to you; to include behaviours that you want to see ‘lived’ in your business.)

Strong management in place, values established and lived … you’ll now be drawing in your players and your fanbase.   Your players are the workforce, at all levels, and when they like what they see they won’t be holding you hostage for more salary, fancier job titles, shorter hours, etc; they will commit to you.  (You could see, in every freeze frame of a goal scored or missed by the England team last summer, just what it meant on a very deep and human level for them.  Notwithstanding the silly pay cheques … they were committed.)  And the fanbase?  Well, customers, or people like me, sitting on the sofa, watching ‘our team’ hammering Panama, and wanting to belong to all of this.

We can all be inspired by goals we believe to be worthwhile; by joined up teams, and authentic values.  We can see the point in winning and can take pride in the victory when it happens (or suffer the loss but quickly regroup).  When playing in the Ryder Cup last summer one of the winning players (one half of the Moliwood bromance, I think ) commented on how different – how better – it felt to be working with a team towards a shared goals.  Watching those final putts from my worn-out sofa, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Kinship, endeavour, discipline, pursuit …

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