Competitiveness Is Not Aggression

Commentary by I. Barry Goldberg

Competition in business is a good thing. It hones our ideas, processes and products. Competition continually asks for creativity and develops mental toughness. But the analogies to war and even heavily physical sport only go so far. While companies that cannot compete fold, no one dies because of a lost sale. Business competition has more to do with endeavors that require rigorous training, control of emotion (as opposed to the intense release of it) and a keen balance of preparation, creativity and presence. Great examples include the martial arts, tennis and, of course, golf.

With Jack Nicklaus headlining a major charity event at the Alotian Club this week, I decided to explore a trait for which he is famous: competitiveness. As it turns out, Mr. Nicklaus (I just cannot call him Jack) may just be a walking archetype of the sort of competitive discipline that wins most often in the meeting room as well as on the links. I went to a number of front-line competitors in both business and golf to hear what they had to say about competitiveness. Their observations fell into four broad categories:

Be rigorous in your preparation.

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Consistently successful competitors ensure that they are well-equipped and well-supported. Smart competitors assemble teams, systems and processes they know will perform well, especially under pressure. No tough competitor wants to find out in the middle of negotiations that critical data is not available (or flat-out wrong!) or that changes did not reach him for lack of confidence or preparedness.

Consider the story published by Michael Konick in his book, "Nice Shot Mr. Nicklaus." Konick describes the opportunity to caddy for Nicklaus at the opening of Grand Haven Golf Course in Palm Coast, Fla. The Nicklaus advance staff gave him these instructions as caddy: "Show up, keep up and, above all, shut up." Yet on the practice green, he was asked by arguably the world's best golfer to read a putt. Konick saw it slightly right to left, but Nicklaus, the man who designed the course, didn't buy it. "Are you sure, Mike? It looks like it moves left to right to me." Nervous and unsure of himself, Konick stuck to his original read as Nicklaus rounded the green, plumb-bobbed and kept pushing. Finally, Nicklaus smiled at him and said "Good, at least I know you are not a yes-man."

Cultivate confidence, creativity and presence, not swagger.

Thorough preparation is in part what allows a competitor to channel his focus into his best performance. Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf and a mental game coach with PGA clients, describes that kind of competitive standing as "unconditional confidence." Unconditional confidence is a self-sufficiency born of presence and skill. It does not depend on outside events to remain trustworthy and is the antithesis of what he describes as false confidence or swagger.

Marc Effron, VP of Talent Management at Avon, describes that company's approach to competitiveness this way: "We look for a balance between personal competitiveness, teamwork and humility - which is a core value at Avon". Humility is an unexpected trait, since Avon is in a very competitive business. "We compete on product quality and on the channel. We compete for the best direct sellers - but we do not want internal competition. We do not compete with ourselves. Humility takes the rough edges off what might be considered appropriate elsewhere and allows us to focus on what matters."

And for presence, simply watch Jack Nicklaus execute a golf shot. You will see decades of work honing craft and skill. You will see power, channeled through controlled mental and physical performance. You will see a melding of technique and strength bound up in the mental focus and intensity of absolute presence in the moment. You will not see unbounded emotional aggression or anger. That focus on personal best and on absolute presence is the culmination of all the preparation and is aimed at one simple outcome: the best possible execution of the golf shot. And while hugely competitive, that has nothing to do with his competitors.

Understand what the real contest is and know the rules.

Barry Trailer is the author of "Sales Mastery" and co-founder at CSO Insights (, a research firm measuring effectiveness of sales and marketing organizations. Trailer has been researching what works in sales organizations for more than 20 years, and his work has been published in industry reports, his own books and Harvard Business Review.

Trailer describes a matrix that CSO Insights' research discovered, measuring both the quality of sales relationships and the rigor and resilience of sales processes. "The findings were clear that the more trust, patiently built, in developing sales relationships and the more dependable and appropriate sales process execution is, the more quota-beating years are put on the boards."

Another example bridges the worlds of golf and business. Ely Callaway founded a golf equipment company and his Big Bertha line of clubs forever changed the game. Instead of being targeted at high performance players, Callaway sold to mediocre golfers, promising that his equipment would make the game less difficult and increase their enjoyment. As the first to market, the company enjoyed early mover success. However, they did not remain competitive as companies when powerful brands like Titleist, Cobra and Taylor Made entered the game improvement club market. George Fellows, the CEO of Callaway golf, has, however, brought the company back to growth and profitability by changing the nature of their competitive strategy. Callaway refocused from being a product-intensive golf equipment company to competing as a consumer-product company. In short, Callaway changed who it was competing against to play to its own strengths. And so far, it has been very successful.

Or, as Mr. Nicklaus once put it: "Over the first three rounds, you're playing the course. In the final round, if you are in contention, you are playing the man."

Take advantage of openings, but focus on your own best performance.

Jon Zieske, head golf pro at The Alotian Club, and had this to say about competition: "In match play, I will adjust the risks I take to my competitor's game, no question. But I still have to play my own game."

The mind responds to a positive picture. Seeing yourself the victor is subtly different from seeing your opponent beaten. The former will focus your mind on the game you have to play, the latter on what will have to happen to your opponent. And Jon was clear: "The fastest way to throw a four-hole lead is to take your mind off the match and think about something else. I know. I have done it."

I got a lot of e-mail two years ago when I used this space to write on character and Jack Nicklaus' final competitive round of golf as a professional at The Open. I still have my Scottish fivers, one over the desk and one in my wallet. I put them there as a reminder of the importance of sportsmanship and character - but they are also symbols of tough mindedness and a competitive spirit. Jack Nicklaus may have shown his integrity by conceding a putt to Tony Jacklin that day at the Ryder Cup. Only he knows why he did it. But he could be gracious om the 18th hole because he had been an unrelenting competitor for the previous 17.                                        

(I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock. Goldberg holds an advanced certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University. You can reach him at