By Chuck Violand

November 24, 2014

At the beach volleyball networking events held during our business planning retreats in Florida, we went to great lengths to make sure no one was picked last for any of the teams. Some of us have lasting scars from our childhoods, and we didn’t want our actions to resurrect any feelings of being embarrassed or demoralized.

In retrospect, I’m questioning the wisdom of our decision. I believe there’s a lot to be learned, both in life and in business, from losing or being the last one picked for a team. In many ways, we have far more to learn from losing than we do from winning. And while winning may build confidence, winning all the time can breed arrogance.

In losing, we learn to overcome adversity. We learn what it’s like to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. Losing teaches us to appreciate victories in a way continually winning never can.

Some of the greatest winners in history started out as losers. George Washington lost more battles than he won before his big victory at Yorktown (with apologies to my UK readers). Abraham Lincoln lost bids for the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate before winning the U.S. presidency. Samuel Morris failed as a painter before gaining fame for his telegraph and the code that carries his name. Henry J. Heinz went bankrupt selling bottled horseradish and pickles before adding ketchup to his “57” varieties and growing an empire.

In losing, real leaders learn to accept defeat with humility and grace even as they anguish in the moment. These are lessons that serve them well in business and in life.

Years ago, one of my sons lost the last spot on a coveted team and found himself carrying water for those who had made it. When I asked him how that felt, he told me it hurt and vowed never to let it happen again. He didn’t, but an important life lesson was learned that serves him to this day.

In professional football, there’s a trophy given annually to “Mr. Irrelevant,” the last man picked in that year’s NFL draft. It’s called the Lowsman Trophy. How ridiculous is that!? Even being picked last among the 256 available draft choices means you’ve finished ahead of thousands of players who had dreams of playing professional football. I bet they would consider receiving the Lowsman a win rather than a loss.

Losing is rarely fatal and doesn’t have to be permanent. In fact, it’s never too late to start winning. Some late-in-life winners are legendary: Colonel Sanders, Ray Kroc, Grandma Moses. Even leadership guru Peter Drucker wrote most of his famous books on management and leadership after he turned 70.

So, here’s the take away from all this talk about losing: the next time you find yourself getting kicked around in business or feeling like Mr. Irrelevant in life, rather than hanging your head and thinking “just wait till next year,” thank the person who won for teaching you a valuable lesson you’ll be able to use to win the next time. That’s a lesson that could not have been learned by winning.