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Player or Slayer?

April 08, 2014

Most, if not all of you reading this article today, are somewhat familiar with Aesop’s fable of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’, which goes like this:

The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten in any race”, he said. “I challenge any one here to race with me.”

To everyone’s shock, the Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.”

“That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.”

“Keep your boasting till you’ve beaten me,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?”

So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and to show his contempt for the Tortoise, he lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning post and could not run fast enough to save the race.

The Tortoise said: “Plodding wins the race.”

Now, if the tortoise is to be believed, according to her, she won the race because she “plodded”. Just like many successful people, she did not understand the true cause of her success.

While it may be true that the tortoise did indeed “plod” (which means “to proceed in a tediously slow manner”), she also did a few other things that may well have contributed more to her victory than she realized…

  1. She was well rested and ready - While Aesop never tells us what the hare was up to the night before the big race, it’s clear that he didn’t get enough sleep to fully recharge his batteries and be at his best, otherwise, he'd not have slept that long for the tortoise to finish the race. On the other hand, the tortoise was well prepared.
  2. She stayed focused on her goal, not herself - One of the unspoken truths of success is that it is considerably easier to achieve when it’s not about you. Staying the course or reaching your goal is best done by actually focusing on the goal, not on what it would mean for you to succeed or fail. You achieve more when you are doing it for a different purpose, other than yourself.
  3. She kept on going until the race was done - I don’t know if the tortoise actually believed she could win the race when she started out, but somehow she knew to focus on what was within her control – bringing a disciplined approach to the race and keeping her feet moving until the finish line was crossed. She never gave up.

While some might look at the Hare’s last-ditch effort to cross the finish line first as a show of ‘determination’, personally I think it was more of a desperate attempt to save himself from the embarrassment of losing a foot race to a tortoise.

Perhaps he would have done well to heed this quote from the good book: “Pride comes before a fall”

Now, I’d like to share with you the extended version of this story, which has a few new twists and more lessons to be learnt from it. Here goes…

After losing the race to the Tortoise, he did some soul-searching and realized that he lost the race only because he had been overconfident, careless and lax. If he had not taken things for granted, there’s no way the Tortoise could have beaten him. So he challenged the Tortoise to another race. The Tortoise agreed.

As expected, this time, the Hare went all out and ran without stopping from start to finish. He won by several miles.

Analyzing this part of the story, we can conclude that fast and consistent will always beat the slow and steady. For instance, if you have two people in your organization, one slow, methodical and reliable, and the other fast and still reliable at what he does, the fast and reliable guy will consistently climb the organizational ladder faster than the slow, methodical guy.

In conclusion, though it is good to be slow, steady and sure, it’s better to be fast and reliable.

But the story doesn’t end there. It goes on…

After he lost to the Hare, the Tortoise did some hard thinking this time, and admitted that there’s no way he could have beaten the Hare in that race as it was. In fact, he was fully aware the first time he got very lucky. After thinking and strategizing, he challenged the Hare to yet another race, but this time on a slightly different route. The Hare agreed. The tortoise and Hare started off and in keeping with his self-made commitment to be consistently fast, the Hare took off and ran at top speed until he came to a broad river. The finishing line was a couple of kilometers on the other side of the river.

The Hare sat there wondering what to do. In the meantime the Tortoise trundled along, got into the river, swam to the opposite bank, continued walking and finished the race.

So what do we learn from this story? Before doing anything, always identify your core competencies and then change the playing field to suit them (your competencies).

For instance, in your organization, if you are a good speaker, make sure you create opportunities to give presentations that enable the senior management to notice you. If your strength is analysis, make sure you do some sort of research, make a report and send it upstairs. Working from your strengths will not only get you noticed, but it will also create opportunities for growth and advancement.

Moving on, of course the Hare did not take this defeat lightly and as he did the first time, he went and did some serious soul-searching. By this time the two had become pretty good friends and so they decided to brainstorm together. Both realized that the last race could have been run much better if a different approach had been applied. So the Tortoise and the Hare decided to test this new approach by doing the last race again. They decided to run as a team this time.

They started off, and this time the Hare carried the Tortoise till the riverbank. There, the Tortoise took over and swam across with the Hare on his back. On the opposite bank, the Hare again carried the Tortoise and they reached the finish line together. Both the Tortoise and Hare felt a greater sense of satisfaction than they’d felt earlier when each had won individually.

From this part of the story, we learn that it is good to be individually brilliant and to have strong core competencies; but unless you’re able to work in a team and harness each other’s core competencies, you’ll always perform below par because there will always be situations at which you’ll do poorly while someone else does well.

Teamwork is mainly about situational leadership, letting the person with the relevant core competency for a situation take leadership.

Note that neither the Tortoise nor the Hare gave up after failures. The Hare decided to work harder and put in more effort after his first failure. On the other hand, the Tortoise changed his strategy because he was already working as hard as he could. In life, when faced with failure, sometimes it is appropriate to work harder and put in more effort. Sometimes it is appropriate to change strategy completely and try something totally different. And sometimes it is appropriate to do both.

The tortoise and hare also learnt another vital lesson in teamwork; When we stop competing against a rival and instead start competing against the situation, we perform far better.

In conclusion, the story of the Hare and the Tortoise teaches us many things. Chief among them are that:

  1. Fast and consistent will always beat slow and steady; 
  2. Work to your competencies;
  3. Pooling resources and working as a team will always beat individual performers;
  4. Never give up when faced with failure; and finally,
  5. Compete against the situation, not against a rival.
To give you an example of competing against the situation and not the rival, I will use two world-renown products; Coke & Pepsi.
 
When Roberto Goizueta took over as CEO of Coca-Cola in the 1980s, he was faced with intense competition from Pepsi that was eating into Coke’s growth. His executives were Pepsi-focused and intent on increasing market share 0.1 per cent a time.
 
Goizueta decided to stop competing against Pepsi and instead compete against the situation of 0.1 per cent growth.
 
He asked his executives what the average fluid intake of an American per day was. The answer was 14 ounces. What was Coke’s share of that? 2 ounces. It was obvious that Pepsi was not the competition since they did not have the remaining 12 ounces. The competition was the water, tea, coffee, milk and fruit juices.
 
Goizueta said Coke needed a larger share of that market. He wanted to make sure that the public should reach for a Coke whenever they felt like drinking something. To achieve this, Coke put up vending machines at every street corner.
 
To cut a long story short, Coke sales took a quantum jump and as a result Pepsi has never quite caught up since.

So, what is your situation today? Does it require you to work harder? Does it require you to change your strategy? Or does it require you to work harder as you change your strategy?

Whatever the case remember, change your mindset so that you think win-win. Be a team player and not a team slayer. Remember, Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM).

PS: Article published in Tanzania's Guardian on Sunday on the 6th April, 2014, under my weekly column "Thoughts in Words".

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