Winning at All Costs Is Not True Leadership
Inter arma enim silent leges may be true for the mob, but it doesn’t apply to leadership.
There's nothing like a good turn of phrase in Latin, since – Salva me Deus – I do love it so. But one sentence bothered me when I saw it on the Twitter page of Mack Breed, the suspended assistant coach from John Jay High School in San Antonio, Texas. Breed reportedly told his players a referee needed to “pay” for bad calls. The result: two of the players, as the game time was expiring, brutally assaulted the ref. Great sportsmanship, that.
Breed's Twitter feed, now deleted, gave some insight into what could drive a coach to incite such violence. He tweeted a quote from the ancient Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero on Aug. 12: “Silent leges inter arma.”
Translation: "In times of arms, the laws are silent."
(You'll notice Breed actually didn't even get Cicero's phrase right, choosing a shorthand that doesn't even translate properly, like when someone pays for a Chinese character tattoo for the word “Fortitude” on her shoulder, only to get something that actually means “Chicken with Water Chestnuts.”)
What Breed meant to say -- Inter arma enim silent leges -- suggests that winning has no rules. Ignore laws to get what you want. Conquer at all costs. Total war. It seems to be the kind of phrase trotted out to rally an army to achieve some glorious victory.
Had Breed paid attention in history class, though, he'd know how far from the mark he was. Cicero wrote the phrase to describe a time of civil unrest, to defend someone of murder. Cicero's point was that laws couldn't apply because Rome was beset by riots and mob rule. Rather than inspiring a team, or an army, to fight hard to win, Cicero was trying to excuse a breakdown of authority and a failure of leadership. So Breed was using a lamentation of a collapse in societal structure as some kind of sick rallying cry.
When you lead by telling your team to win at all costs, you end up with a team that doesn’t know right from wrong. You get high school kids who think it’s OK to sucker-tackle an unsuspecting referee. Even if you believe the excuse -- far from proven -- that the ref said something offensive to a player, that doesn't excuse the kind of mindlessness, rage and brutality unleashed in these kids. These student-athletes should be taught better, by coaches like Breed and San Antonio Jay head coach Gary Gutierrez. This is part of their formation as humans, and high school football is a path to greater leadership lessons, hopefully through scholarships to colleges. But, by exhorting kids to win at all costs, the uniform they wear has more chance of being an orange jumpsuit than a Division I jersey.
Sports needs to be about fair play, but, more and more, it isn't. Whether it's is the great ESPN report on how the New England Patriots routinely cheated by stealing playbooks and taping signals or the federal indictments of soccer's worldwide governing body for widespread corruption, we seem to be bombarded with news about cheating.
It’s not just on the field. The same win-at-all-costs fallacy happens too often in the business world. Just this week, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek and two other company officials stepped down amid an investigation into whether the company altered its airline routes to create a nonstop flight between Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey and Columbia, S.C., as a favor to David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The Port Authority regulates all the airports in the New York metropolitan area, where United operates. That would be cheating, too -- currying favor for a regulator at the expense of your shareholders.
Worst part of trying to win at all costs is that, in most cases, the cheating is unnecessary. Look at the Watergate break-in. In 1972, operatives associated with President Richard Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel in an attempt to plant listening devices. That same year, Nixon beat Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, in one of the largest landslides ever. McGovern got just 17 more electoral votes than I did that year, and I was 2 months old.
Nixon didn't have to cheat to win, but he did. The Patriots didn't have to steal plays to win games, and there are plenty of instances that suggested the team's cheating didn't actually help on the field. United could have made its regulator take a layover like the rest of us, with nary a negative effect. But, in all those cases, people who purport to call themselves leaders made a choice without consideration of what was right and what was wrong, all in the pursuit of blind advantage.
When you set out to win and don't count the costs, you end up paying far more than you expected. We all have rules to follow. Sports have rules, enforced by referees and umpires who shouldn't fear assault for getting a call wrong. Business and politics have rules, too, normally in the form of regulations and laws that need to be followed, whether we agree with them or not. These constraints are all healthy, as they set boundaries and parameters through which we, as leaders, need to set strategy and build a sustainable path to success. Leaders need to respect the constraints of society and then foster their teams to act ethically and legally within these confines. Only then can they succeed.
Cheating at sports, at business, at politics and at life is the easy way out, and true leadership demands a more difficult, yet more fulfilling, path. Giving in to animalistic fury, flouting conventions and rules and having a myopic view of your goal never makes you win. Rather, it guarantees you will always be a loser.
Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.