What’s happened to gracious winning? Many of us were taught at a tender age the importance of handling a loss with grace, but somehow in recent years, behavior during a win has run amok.
Take the measures we’ve implemented to mitigate poor behavior in sports, for example. From end zone celebration penalties at college and professional football games to the onset of Silent Cheer Day where parents are banned from jeering loudly at their child’s games—both illustrate how ungracious behavior by some individuals has prompted formal efforts to promote better conduct.
As leaders in the workplace and in life, it’s equally important—if not more so—to show gracious behavior when we experience a win. It’s often hard to put into words what gracious behavior looks or feels like, but I found a description I like very much by author, legal scholar, and president of University of Virginia, James Ryan:
“To be gracious is to make others feel at ease—to selflessly provide others, in a sense, the opportunity to feel graceful themselves. To lead with grace is to recognize that true leadership is not about you. It’s about creating the conditions and opportunities for others to be their graceful best…”
Employees not only look to leaders for creating the right conditions, but they watch for consistent cues about how to behave respectfully. Two examples of gracious leadership that come to mind took place at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s March Madness this year.
The first instance was a game that involved Duke narrowly beating University of Central Florida (UCF) by one point at the very end of the game. UCF’s head coach, Johnny Dawkins, had assisted Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) for 10 years. When Coach K was asked to comment on Duke’s victory, he said UCF deserved to win:
“They played great. Johnny [Dawkins], Aubrey [Dawkins]—holy mackerel. They were deserving of winning. … I’ve been unlucky in the tournament, I’ve been lucky. I feel bad for Johnny [Dawkins]. I’m emotional about it because I love him. And his son [Aubrey Dawkins] was magnificent. Not sensational, magnificent.”
To Ryan’s point, Coach K spoke with compassion as he created an opportunity for his team and their opponents to be at their graceful best. Had he basked in their own triumph with glory stories about how superior they were in the game, there would have been little room for the opponents to feel dignity. Some might have even been compelled to retaliate with responses to salvage their reputation. Thanks to Coach K’s inclusive and respectful remarks, a positive outcome was more likely to be felt by both teams.
Coach K’s exemplary behavior after his team’s finish is a moment to remember, but a blog about humble victories wouldn’t be complete without mentioning University of Virginia’s win over Texas Tech in the championship game. Moments after Virginia’s win, head coach Tony Bennett said, “Don’t let this change you. It doesn’t have to,” he told them. “Stay humble and stay thankful.”
You could argue that no NCAA Tournament team was more humbled than UVA last year when they became the first number-one-seed team to lose against a 16-seed-team in the tournament. When Bennett was asked about their road to victory this year after a heart-breaking appearance in 2018, he said:
“I played a song for them today called ‘Hills and Valleys’ by Tauren Wells and it just means that you’re never alone in the hills and the valleys and we faced those from last year to this year. The credit goes to these young men … Coaches get too much credit when it goes well and they get too much blame when it goes bad. These young men deserve this championship.”
Bennett’s remarks exuded empathy and humility for what his team had been through. In Ryan’s words, Bennett conveyed that true leadership wasn’t about him, rather the victory was about his team’s buoyancy after experiencing a collective valley.
The next time you find yourself in a competitive situation, consider Ryan’s sentiments and commentary from the coaches after a close win. Do you exhibit compassion and humility before, leading up to and after a big win (or loss)? If so, your team has a better chance of choosing behavior you can be proud of the next time a challenge comes along. And the competitor who you’ve graciously treated will likely return the favor when the tables are turned.