Confidence vs arrogance in marketing, comms

No cage-fighting mentality that excites boxing ring fans is likely to prevail in the team sport of business.

The psychology of sport is a well-researched and intriguing part of human performance. Whether it is the loneliness of the long-distance runner or the collective dynamic of an international rugby team, the complexities of human thinking, attitude and outlook are a critical part of both individual and team performance. The mental demands of staying ahead of the competition require extraordinary conditioning and capacity to deal with the pressures of game performance, media intervention, sponsors and the needs of fans — sometimes loyal to a fault and, at other times, brutal in their expectation of nothing short of victory, followed by yet another victory. In the words of the classic Nike campaign, “You don’t win Silver, you lose Gold.”

Confidence and arrogance

The debate around what constitutes confidence and what resembles arrogance will likely forever remain unresolved and the area gets grey in the world of sport. Watching the antics of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo as he celebrates yet another incredible goal is in stark contrast to witnessing tennis player Roger Federer hold up another Wimbledon trophy and breaking the male tournament record in the process. While the former is all showmanship and flamboyance, the latter is an expression of humility, groundedness and a clear statement of family values embedded in sports performance. Both are incredibly marketable sportsmen and have amassed wealth that often belies the reasonable person’s view of what is justifiable in terms of earnings. But which style is most appropriate or relevant?

Some individual sports border on the cusp of brash arrogance in order to survive. Take a look at the recent media briefing on the clash between boxers Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor, and it is clear showmanship of an extreme kind, as 11 000 people gathered at the media event alone to witness what some would regard as the barbaric sport of boxing, a modern-day version of two contenders in the 21st century Colosseum equivalent. Much like the legend Muhammed Ali, there is no modesty on display here. Contrast this again with our very own Branden Grace, who hails from George, breaking a golfing record for shooting a round of 62 at the British Open, as the first-ever golfer to do so at a major — oblivious to the fact at the time and shrouded in complete humility.

Whether you accept arrogance as necessary in the world of sport or not, the issue here is that sport success demands and rewards this in some cases, and a lot of fans thrive off the sheer contest, competition and raw talent on display. Style is in the hands of the individual and it appears as though there is room for both in the global sport arena.

Is business any different?

By its nature, business is a team sport and while it celebrates individual excellence, it demands a collective effort among talented and similarly motivated and confident individuals. The team is naturally much larger in most cases and a lot more complex in composition, but the confidence to engage, perform and stay ahead of the pack is equally relevant.

Individual leadership plays a critical role in this equation. As former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick may testify, arrogance and brash behaviour are not a winning formula and are unlikely to last as a sustainable solution, even among incredibly talented and visionary entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs was reportedly arrogant to an extent, or at least misunderstood by many and was a very difficult person to work with. That he achieved incredible innovation and results through people is beyond debate, and he clearly balanced any perceived arrogance with an amazing vision and eye for excellence.

South Africa has a significant list of entrepreneurs and business leaders who have done extremely well, with incredibly different styles. Sol Kerzner was tough to work for and arrogant, according to some, whereas Sipho Nkosi at Exxaro was one of the warmest and engaging executives you could hope to meet, in spite of significant wealth and a very senior role as a captain in the mining industry. In the state-owned space, Gill Marcus transitioned from Absa to the South African Reserve Bank with aplomb and her quietly strong disposition is sorely missed in the current fiscal environment.

Situational leadership prevails

In Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba has had to take a quantum step from the early background of humble-entrepreneur-turned-successful-businessman into the nasty world of politics and take some bold positions in the process. He doesn’t strike one as arrogant at all but he has clearly been required to make some unpopular statements in a tough political environment that requires balanced perspective and treading some challenging waters, as is so often the case in business, where myriad stakeholders with a spectrum of needs resemble the baying fans in demand of a victorious outcome.

Perhaps more telling in business is that one doesn’t easily reset the league or stage a rematch a few months later. Business, by its nature, carries far-reaching consequences and requires a steady hand.

There is clearly no-one-size-fits-all in either business, politics or sport. However, I would argue that, in the long run, talent and leadership that are humane, people-centric and modest will ultimately prevail. After all, life is too short to spend with someone preoccupied with only themselves and victory at all costs.

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