Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The glorification of competition

I've noticed that we often revere people who are winners, or dominant in their field of work. Bill Gates was for a long time, revered as a business man. George Bush was revered by many as the previous president and Obama is revered by many as our current president. Dominant companies grow rich and are admired. They are often gifted by governments with privileges other companies do not enjoy.

The attitude of many CEOs is that of someone who "did it all by himself", a self-made man (or woman). This idea that a CEO rose to the top by his own efforts is common in American culture.

But nothing could be further from the truth. No one rises to dominance without the cooperation of others. The power of a single man is a function of the power that others are willing to give to that one man. When a single man rises above the rest, our culture holds him up as a model citizen, someone who has vanquished all competitors and owns the market or field of work he is in.

Steve Jobs is one example. He co-founded Apple with Steve Wozniak, was eventually fired from Apple, and returned years later to revitalize the company to the great fortunes that Apple now enjoys. While it is true that Jobs was a leader, he didn't do it alone, and he could not have done it without the cooperation of others in the company he founded. There was also a woman behind Jobs, providing support, comfort and encouragement. Even the government helped Apple. Yet we are quick to make Jobs as an icon in our culture, someone to be admired and adored. Why?

Human history is replete with leaders, some great, some fearsome. Whatever the level of leadership men and women rise to, no leadership is possible without cooperation from others. There is no "self-made man", for if there is or ever was, he has been lost in obscurity, somewhere in the tundra, the Ozarks or Tibet, living alone, eeking out a peaceful existence, never to be heard from again. It is only through cooperation from others that leaders rise and there is no exception. Be it Stalin, Kennedy or Einstein, no one makes it to the top without cooperation from others.

Yet, American culture beats the drum of competition every hour of every day. As if that is the only way to succeed, to get ahead, to enjoy life living large. Not a word is given to cooperation. Competition all the way is what the media shows us.

Recent research published in Nature Communications shows that our previous notions about the superiority of competition over cooperation are not born out by the evidence. The latest research and experiments show that cooperation is what allows a species to survive and that competition will drive a species to extinction. Even Darwin noticed cooperation in the habitats he studied and expressed surprise to see it.

In technology, cooperation is required for success. Standards must be devised to make technology work and talk with other technologies. Even patent owners must cooperate with others so that technology can be used at reasonable costs. Apple and Google both must use free and open standards in order to compete in the marketplace, they must cooperate for all of this wondrous technology to work.

When I look at our leaders, I think of all the handshakes they had to make in order to get to the top, to realize their vision and to hang onto to the riches bestowed upon them. In order to realize their vision, they must share it with others and gain their cooperation. No one can lead alone.
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