Capitalism is founded upon competition. In a free market, local retailers vie for the dollars in consumers’ pockets. Promising young managers try to outperform one another to earn a coveted promotion. Salespersons battle against one another to land the account of a major customer.

In the competitive arena, leaders play to win. By nature, they are motivated to finish first. Nothing less rests well with them. As competitors, leaders invest an abundance of energy to get ahead or gain an edge. That’s not to say leaders are cutthroats or cheaters, most compete fairly, but nearly every leader has a burning desire to win.

Much can be learned about leaders by the way they treat those they have defeated. Unfortunately, many leaders are incapable of handling the tricky dynamics of relating to a past opponent. For this reason, they fail when asked to manage former rivals or to preside over a merger with a previous competitor. Consider the toxic attitudes commonly held by some victorious leaders toward those they have beaten:

Proud Conceit – “I’m superior to you, and I’m going to treat you as if you didn’t exist.” Belittling Arrogance – “You’re not as good as I am, and I’m not going to let you forget it.”
Destructive Anger – “How dare you try to defeat me? Since you tried to take what I wanted, I’m going to ruin you.”

Obviously, none of the attitudes described are going to benefit a leader. Instead, they fuel resentment and sabotage a leader’s effectiveness. What’s the proper response for a leader once he or she has triumphed over an opponent?


On April 12, 1865, after four years of bloody struggle, the American Civil War was finally at its end. The defeated Confederate Army had decided to surrender. As soldiers from the South ceremoniously marched to turn in their weapons and formally surrender, their eyes were heavy with the bitter tears of defeat. In the South, nearly one of four men of military age had died during the war. Most of the men had brothers, cousins, or best friends who had paid the ultimate price during the conflict. In the act of surrendering, they faced the reality that all of their loss and suffering had been in vain.

The Northern Army looked on as the beaten Confederates approach the appointed place of surrender. Amazingly, the victorious Union troops did not cheer, they did not gloat, and they did not taunt. Instead, ignoring all protocol, the North’s commanding officer, Joshua Chamberlain, ordered his men to salute the Confederates, offering them a gesture of deep honor. Upon receiving the salute, the presiding Confederate officer instructed his men to return the salute. Side by side the opposing armies stood, displaying to each other a sign of utmost respect.


1. Let go of past offenses incurred during the competition.

Joshua Chamberlain, the honorable Northern general who ordered his troops to salute the Confederates, had more reason to despise them than most. During the war, Chamberlain had had six horses shot from beneath him during battle. He had also been wounded by the Confederates six times. In fact, one injury to his hip was severe enough that it would plague him with pain the rest of his life. Yet, Chamberlain carried no grudge against his countrymen from the South. His symbolic salute to them was the first welcome the Confederate soldiers would receive back into the United States of America.

Competition is fraught with petty offenses. When egos are involved and career dreams are on the line, it’s difficult not to personalize the adversarial nature of competition. However, the truest leaders refuse to be tainted by conflict. Instead, they recognize the shared humanity they hold in common with those they compete against.

2. Heal and restore the relationship

Loss is an emotional experience. Many times, the failure of coming up short causes intense frustration or discouragement. By showing respect to the losing side, a leader validates the effort of their opponents. Such actions begin the process of healing by restoring the honor of the person who has been defeated.


“Insults should be written in the sand, and praises carved in stone.

~ Arab Proverb

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

~ Mark Twain

I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.

~ Charles M. Schwab

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