Magnanimity in victory

I was very lucky to grow up in a household in which competitive sports were highly valued. I learned that hard work and practice affect outcome. I got to experience the joys of being on a very good team and managing on occasion to win games that should have been lost. I also was on teams that lost when they should have won.

Leave aside the truth that sport is the closest thing in life to a meritocracy, where one is judged more by his or her ability, talent, mental smarts, preparedness to work hard and determination to succeed than in any other walk of life that I can think of.  And leave aside that those who miss out on this aspect of competitive sport are the poorer for it. And leave aside even the fantastic lessons for life that come from experiencing intense competition – that losses are inevitable, that the pressure of the moment can show up people’s characters in revealing ways, that whom you can rely on in the crunch isn’t always whom you might have thought it would be, and so much more.

Instead, consider for a moment a different side to competitive sport, one that was drilled into me by my dad and one for which I am eternally grateful.  It was about how you handled victory and defeat. In my family, if you wanted to be able to sit down some time in the next fortnight, you soon learned that if you lost you walked over to your opponent, shook his hand, congratulated him, and wished him luck in the rest of his games. And then you shut up. You did this whether or not the referees were appalling or every bit of good luck imaginable had gone his way. You did it whether you were gutted at throwing away certain victory or even where you suspected your opponent may have cheated.

Of course at first this behaviour was simply a response to good parenting. But eventually I came to see its value for myself. In a world in which there will always be as many losers as winners, it is a sort of social virtue not to be a sore loser. It helps grease the wheels of social interaction and make it possible to play the game in the first place.  Quite simply, sore losers lack an aspect of good character. They’re missing something that would have served them well in other areas of life.

And the only thing that is worse than a sore loser is a sore winner, a gloating victor who lacks all traces of magnanimity and (for lack of a better word) class. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have class in this sense, both when they lose and just as importantly when they win. They don’t rub the win into the faces of their vanquished opponents. They follow Winston Churchill’s maxim, “in victory magnanimity”.

Steering clear of being a sore loser and a sore winner is a pretty good motto for life, as it happens. It’s not just that avoiding such behaviour correlates pretty closely to greater success in jobs and relationships, though I suspect very strongly that it does. It also instils a certain equanimity. It gives you a more philosophical outlook on life.

These twin evils of sore losing and sore winning can even tell us something about democracy. To make a democracy work, you need to be able to throw those in power out peacefully, whatever sort of job they’ve been doing. And you need them to leave without being sore losers.

Think about Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War. There was a man who had shepherded the United Kingdom through the darkest days of the war, when defeat seemed likely and allies were thin on the ground. He had inspired in his country the belief that it could prevail against the odds. He had stood at the very centre of the decision-making that had, in fact, led to victory.And yet in the British election at the end of the war in Europe the voters threw him out. More of them voted for the other party. And what happened then? Churchill simply left office and the other party came in. No fighting. No carping. No agitating supporters not to accept the result. In short, no sore losing. He no doubt thought the voters had made a mistake, but that was their privilege. That, in a way, was the very point of the war.

Losing well and winning well lie at the heart of democracy. Without them, democracy is diminished. Without the former, the losers won’t accept defeat. They won’t focus on doing better next time. They’ll stir up trouble for the winner. The Philippines and Thailand spring to mind.

Obversely, good winners are needed too.  As in sports, gloating, puffed-up winners are generally despised. A bit of humility, even if not heartfelt, helps to grease the wheels and make losing less painful. Democracy works better when winners don’t kick the losers when they’re down. Some day, they will be in a similar position themselves.

Here’s the thing. When you live with millions of other people in a country you should expect lots and lots of disagreement over lots and lots of issues. Those who differ from you generally aren’t wicked, evil or odious. They have the same hopes for a better country as you do. They just have differing views about how to achieve that.

Those of us living in the democratic chunk of the world are extremely fortunate in being able to resolve our disagreements by voting. Everyone counts equally and we all get a say. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be on the winning side, sometimes not. When it’s the latter, we ought to show some class and wish the victors the best of luck. When it’s the former, we ought to show even more class and bend over backwards to be magnanimous.

In a democracy, you simply cannot expect always to be on the winning side. It’s like sports. Defeat will eventually catch up with you. Outside of some sort of Manichean view of the world, where everything is lumped into the good or evil box, this is not to be regretted.

One other thing. If there were a little less sore losing and sore winning we might all be able to recapture some of the diminished regard for our elected politicians. I personally have immense respect for all people who go into politics, for whatever political parties and from whatever walks of life. They work hard. They put up with a lot that the rest of us don’t have to put up with. For many they sacrifice higher paid jobs elsewhere and time with their families.  Most of us seem to be able to recognise talent and hard work and greatness in those who play for sporting teams we don’t like or hope for. Vowing to extend the same attitude to politicians wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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