Nobody ever won a relay race on their own

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Nobody ever won a relay race on their own

It’s in our hands now – let’s stay in the lane and pass the baton into the future

Mark Barnes

The highlight of the Olympic Games must surely be the 4x100m relay final. The 100m sprint has always been the ultimate measure of athletic prowess but the relay turns the top individual event into a team performance, ironically increasing the risk. Some of the biggest upsets in athletics history have been caused by mistakes in a relay. Your whole team get disqualified if you drop the baton, step out of your lane, run over the handover zone, or simply don’t cross the finish line with the baton.
The risk is not so much on the ability of the individuals (all of whom are world class athletes in their own right) as much as it is on the team sequence proceeding as seamlessly as possible.
There are many stories of upsets. Britain took gold in Athens in 2004 as the US fumbled the handover; Canada was denied bronze in London in 2012 as a fraction of a shoe went over the lane line; both the men’s and women’s US teams didn’t even make the 400m relay final in Beijing because the last baton handover failed. It’s bad luck to lose like that, but it’s also good practice that wins.Leadership, at all levels, has as much to do with receiving and passing the baton as it does the individual performance of the incumbent. Leaders have to submit to the strategy, the common cause, in order to build on established foundations and hand over a higher level. Continuity becomes as valuable as individual performance.
Some CEOs define their organisations and deserve to stay in the hot-seat longer than others – there are individuals who can run the 400m faster alone than other groups of four can in series. Even in this instance, though, succession planning and delegation are essential. The superstars cannot and should not be allowed to try to do everything alone.
The soccer world cup was a classic example where centering your game plan around an individual didn’t win the match. Underdog teams outperformed because they had a greater cause than personal glory, or money.
Out-of-line, self-centred individual leaders can blow the whole game. Trump might do that for the US. His outrageous, interfering foreign policy utterances, apparently excused by his nationalist ideal, won’t work. Sure, he won the election on that ticket, and, respectfully executed, it could make sense. I’m certainly in favour of putting SA and her people first.But the answer isn’t always war, and the answer is seldom either-or. There may well have been a time when there just weren’t any Davids around to challenge the sole economic Goliath that was once the US, but there are now. China, Japan, India, Europe, Asia, and even Africa (if we can get our baton passing sorted out) can all resist, if not retaliate against, protectionist economic policy – never mind if we start acting together.
Cut a deal, don’t start a fight. There is no sustainable victory in a trade war in the global economy, just scorched earth. It is the size of the intersection that matters, not the distance between the counter-parties. Of course it’s got to be fair, that’s what the fight should be about, if there is to be one.
There may well be short-term victories, and they may even be popular, for now. But the question I increasingly find myself asking is not whether I won the negotiation, but whether I could have done a better deal, whether something was destroyed as collateral damage that could have been a valuable contributor to a better future mix. At some point too much influence is destructive. Populism, the currency of democracy, is misguided and short lived in the world of policy formulation – it makes the hard stuff even harder to do.
People get fed up with showoffs, know-it-alls. Some say Trump’s impeachment is already under way. His defiant retort is that it will cause a stock market crash. In fact it might be a stock market crash that gives impetus to the impeachment initiative – he may be the hangover, not the party.
We, all of us, were handed the baton in our relay. We only got into the race at all because those who came before us negotiated a deal when they could have instead demanded a victory. It’s in our hands now – let’s stay in the lane and pass the baton into the future, before we run out of the limited yards left in the handover zone.
Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.

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