On the day of the UK general election, politicians, media outlets, party members, and social media rabble-rousers are making a final push for victory. Now more than ever it is clear how the fundamental metric of political success has become reduced to just one thing – to win.
Not, of course, that wishing to ‘win’ an election is anything other than an entirely sensible and potentially noble aspiration. The party that wins is that which then has the capacity to realise its vision for the country, to actively create an impact in the world. However, what happens when the will to win becomes an end in itself? What does it mean for us as people and citizens when the language of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ becomes unmoored from any clear sense of what it is that those competing are striving for?
It’s no coincidence that the system used to elect MPs to Westminster is known as ‘first past the post’. It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump repeatedly assured his followers on the campaign trail that “we’re going to win so much…you’re going to be so sick of winning”; that he brands his rivals ‘losers’.
It’s tempting to hold Trump up as an example of what happens when ego and power run amok, but perhaps those of us who abhor him notice in him a little of ourselves. Might it be helpful to put ourselves in his shoes, or those of any politician apparently blinded by the pursuit of victory? Or at the very least to ask ourselves how our own pursuit of success might sometimes have led us to wander from the path that actually feels most true for us – to sacrifice our values in order to achieve our goals?
In our culture, success and ‘winning’ have become synonymous. And for someone to win, someone else has to lose – thus we search for evidence of our success or otherwise by comparing ourselves to other people. Our minds are constantly on the lookout for evidence that we are either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. “How much am I earning? How much am I earning compared to my friends? How good is my relationship? How good is my relationship compared to my friends? Am I hitting my targets at work? Are my colleagues hitting their targets?”
Not only are these markers of success by their nature comparative, they are totally external – based on things outside of us, over which we have at best limited control.
But here’s the thing. When you actually ask people, none of this stuff actually matters to them. There is an exercise we have done in Conscious Leadership workshops in the past. We present people with 15 or so pictures of a diverse array of people who could be described as ‘leaders’ – from Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King, via Lady Gaga. We then ask them to choose the one that they respect or admire the most, and to then discuss the qualities that particularly evoke that respect or admiration.
When we do this exercise with people the leaders they choose are always different, but the kind of qualities that are reflected back are invariably very similar. People talk about admiring kindness, humility, honesty, positivity, courage, perseverance. Vanishingly small are the occasions that people mention things like beauty, fame, youth, wealth, or power. When we truly pause to reflect on what really matters to us these things do not even enter the conversation. And yet, these are the things that we judge ourselves on and often strive for on a daily basis, often at the expense of the stuff that does matter – our values.
Author and conscious business coach Fred Kofman @fredkofman talks about ‘success beyond success’. He talks about switching focus from the outcome of our endeavours to the process of endeavouring – away from what we achieve to how we are as we strive to achieve it. The measure of success beyond success is not ‘what did I do?’ but ‘to what degree did I uphold my core values as I did it?’ This is a success that comes not from looking at your bank balance, not from taking a seat in the House of Commons, but from looking in the mirror at the end of the day and feeling truly, authentically proud of the person you have been.
The beauty of success beyond success is this – it is 100% in your hands. No other person, no shift in the market, no external factor can influence it at all. It is completely independent of any outcome. If you were true to yourself and showed up at your best as you strove to achieve your goal, whether or not it was actually reached is actually immaterial. Not, of course, that this means that goals in themselves are unimportant, they absolutely are – but from this perspective the achievement of goals becomes secondary to the pursuit of values.
This may seem like a radical shift, especially on the day of a general election. But regardless of the outcome, the campaign itself has shone a light on some changing attitudes in UK voters. When the election was called, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s personal approval rating was historically low – he was seen as fundamentally unelectable. However, over the course of just over six weeks it has risen dramatically. While he still has many vigorous critics, new supporters have praised what they see as his dignity in the face of media scorn, his comfort on the public stage, and his consistent adherence to a clear set of principles.
Especially amongst younger people these qualities set Corbyn apart from other politicians. They seem to see in him someone who has put ‘success beyond success’ above the will to win at all costs. That doesn’t mean that the sting of defeat will be any less acute for those who support him should – as polls predict – the outcome tomorrow is defeat for the Labour Party. But perhaps what is being built is a more sustainable vision of success in the next generation of leaders. A generation of conscious leaders, led by values rather than party politics, religious dogma, or the pursuit of the old trappings of ‘success’. Whatever the outcome today, this gives me hope.
Jon is an experienced training facilitator and performance coach, based in London and specialising in working with people around health, wellbeing and resilience. With a background in psychology, and health and social care, he now works with a range of clients within the corporate and the public sector. In recent years these have included Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, the NHS, local London Borough Social Services, and a number of high-profile charities.
His focus is on helping people to maximise their energy and enhance their motivation so that they can perform at their best at work and at home. @blueprintcoach