Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 21, 2007

Don’t forget the real victories

Sports writers and columnists, athletes, and fans seemed universally dismayed over the Philippines’ performance in the 24th Southeast Asian Games, which took place in Thailand last week. The Philippines was hoping to match or exceed its 2005 performance in Manila when it took 113 gold medals. But it was not to be, and Team Philippines settled for just 41 gold medals, “placing sixth.” Thailand took 183 gold medals, finishing first.

While sports stories should be the preserve of sports editors and sports journalists, there are lessons in the 24th SEA Games that apply to business. Let’s start with boxing. There’s a lot of murkiness surrounding the Philippine contingent and its performance. But what the world knows for certain is that amateur boxing president Manny Lopez refused to allow seven Filipino boxers who reached the finals to enter the ring.

His action was reportedly in retaliation for what Lopez described as biased judging that favored Thai athletes. Threatened with a two-year sanction by SEA Games officials, Lopez ultimately relented and allowed five others to box, who did so half-heartedly. In the end, boxing received just one gold and 12 silver medals, compared to eight gold medals two years ago.

If Lopez had allowed the boxers to compete, commentary surrounding the matches – even if they had all been lost – would have focused on the integrity of the judging, if it really was an issue. Instead, commentary is focused on the integrity of the Philippine boxing contingent, especially Lopez, for behaving badly. What’s the lesson in this disappointing example of poor sportsmanship for business?

It is that nothing good comes from refusing to deal with risk. You take the risk and succeed or fail. The one thing that is certain is that failure to take risk always results in failure. It is difficult to imagine what Lopez expected to achieve by refusing to allow his team to do what they had spent two years training for. If he expected respect, he received none.

So goes business as well. A manager who develops his team, thoughtfully commits them to a goal, but fails to deliver is likely to be given another chance. And if the goal is achieved, then the manager’s career advances. But if the manager refuses to commit – to pull the trigger or throw the punch – then obviously the manager and the team are in real trouble. And the chances of recovery may be slim.

Fortunately, there are some positive lessons to be gleaned from the 24th SEA Games. Clearly, swimmer Miguel Molina did his country proud, taking home four gold medals, three for individual performances. It was not just Filipinos who celebrated his victory. Molina was named the 24th SEA Games top male athlete. In all, the Philippines swim team won twice as many gold medals as it did in 2005.

And there is more good news. The Philippines won more medals overall than every other participating country save host Thailand. With 228 medals, the Philippines bested Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. While these countries earned more gold medals, the Philippines clearly demonstrated competitive excellence in a broad range of sports.

In business, it’s of course important to acknowledge when we come up short. It’s not pleasant at all, but unless we confront our failures it’s impossible to learn from them. And accountability is important, too. Unless individuals and teams are held accountable, no one takes responsibility for failure. When no one takes responsibility, failure becomes an acceptable business result.

But failure is not acceptable. It happens. In fact, failure is necessary because it presents the opportunity to learn. That doesn’t mean we like it, or accept it easily. It doesn’t mean it should overshadow success either.

Team Philippines returned to the Philippines with 228 medals that deserve to be celebrated. It will be a real tragedy if we allow the inexplicable behavior of one individual in one sport to eclipse the achievement of the athletes who worked hard to win these medals. And it will be a tragedy as well if Molina’s achievement pales because the 24th SEA Games is remembered as the year the boxing team failed to live up to his example.

Celebrating success wins out over mourning failure in building a successful business. Real achievement is what helps individuals overcome the inevitable failures to create great organizations. The failure of Lopez in the games to make his country proud is a valuable, if disheartening, lesson for us all. But the achievement of Molina and the other athletes – regardless of whether they won – who participated with courage are real victories to be celebrated.

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