Forbes | June 10, 2022
Every leader experiences rivalry at some point. Maybe you were the one to instigate a competition no one requested. Or perhaps you faced a rival for your own leadership.
Rivalry is complex, involving several psychological tenets: loyalty, integrity, control, ambition. That’s why the Caesar/Brutus dynamic was such rich fodder for Shakespeare.
In my view, rivalry is often misunderstood in the business context. It is often seen as a negative force—one person stabbing the other, as in the story of Caesar and Brutus—but it can be a positive corporate exercise if it’s conducted fairly.
One way to understand rivalry more clearly is to ask probing questions.
Does the rivalry test the current corporate strategy?
We have all lived through various social and economic upheavals, which might suggest a need for new ideas and ways of leading. Some argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused more turbulence at the top as companies scramble to chart a way forward. Then there’s the impact of fast-emerging technologies, making leaders who aren’t considered tech-savvy appear as yesterday’s executives.
Of course, robust competition is not about alternate skill sets, although they can be part of the evaluation. A rivalry should examine larger issues: a current leader’s vision and ability to govern. It’s a valuable test. You’re assessing the viability—the health and future—of the company.
Brutus plotted against Caesar because he feared the leader was becoming a tyrant without the best interests of the republic at heart. Self-interest is the toxic element in rivalries. From what I’ve observed, good leaders are more interested in the best future for the company than in their own popularity or power. Perhaps the rival sees a threat to the company that the current leader doesn’t. Perhaps the competitor has innovative new ideas for how the company can thrive.
If current leadership is fit and able to govern, it will survive an attempted removal, but not because it quashes dissent or opposition. On the contrary, leadership should welcome competing views. Rivalry provides leaders with an opportunity to clearly articulate their vision for the future and an assessment of potential threats so that others can choose to follow them or not. If leadership is unfit to govern, the rivalry will expose its weaknesses.
Where do your loyalties lie?
I believe in loyalty. It makes the world a better place because it suggests unconditional and consistent faith in someone or some principle. In business, loyalty gets tested in fundamental ways—ways that are interesting to examine.
For many people in a business situation, loyalty to a person is conditional. It’s easy to be loyal to a leader or a coworker when your interests are aligned. You both have the same goals so you support one another. But what if your interests are no longer aligned? What if the two people are no longer on the same team? Worse, what if the person is no longer helpful to you in your career trajectory?
In my opinion, that is the definition of strategic or selfish loyalty. It’s activated only when you perceive a benefit for yourself to remain attached. I’d like to think we’re more magnanimous than that. Surely, there’s a way to remain loyal, and by that I mean friendly and respectful, even when the other person decides on a course of action you don’t agree with.
I don’t think rivalry should mean winning at the expense of the other. We shouldn’t bad-mouth the losing rival in order to feel justified in having made a choice not to follow them. It is possible to be loyal and disagree. I think the best way to navigate through a contentious rivalry is to focus your loyalty on the organization. If you’re a loyal leader or a loyal rival, you would never risk the organization. You are loyal to its well-being.
If you’re deciding between two rivals, it’s worth considering that no good leader would demand that you take their side even if you have a long history together. A good leader would know that in a corporate situation your loyalty should be to your understanding of the cause and purpose of the organization, not to an individual.
Is there integrity in this rivalry?
A rigorous competition requires leaders to think on their feet. They may be tempted to promote a “quick fix” solution in order to win favor in the short term. This tendency is all too familiar in the political realm when leaders flip-flop on issues depending on which way they perceive the wind is blowing.
At the core of each leader should be what Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Professor Brooke Vuckovic calls “moral toughness.” It’s about staying true to your values if you are the rival or the current leader. You let your values guide your decisions and your behavior.
For me, that’s how trust is built. I trust someone when they have been consistent over time in the kinds of decisions they make. There’s a predictability about them that is reassuring. As a leader, I strive for that kind of consistency of values.
When assessing the integrity of someone else, my advice is to look at the history of the person in question. Let’s not forget that charm can be part of someone’s offensive tactics, so you’ll want to dig beneath the surface. I don’t just look at the track record of what has been written down or chronicled in a bio. I make an effort to speak to people who have experienced that person’s leadership.
It’s how others feel about a leader’s tenure that is often the best measure of their merits. Effective leaders are not only aware of what they want, but they are also paying close attention to what others want as well—thinking about how to help them achieve those goals whether it’s to take a team, a company or a country to a much better place.
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