Right or WrongAs business leaders, we make decisions every day about how our firms and our people compete.

Most of us choose to focus on creating value and solving problems. A few resort to “win at all” costs type behaviors. This latter group poses some vexing problems for those of us that prefer the high-road style of competing for business, but the problems are not insurmountable.

The current competition for political office offers an interesting learning opportunity for all of us. And just when you think that the negative attack ads cannot become any more blatant or vicious, this season’s crop of politicians have managed to outdo themselves.

Political Buffoonery is the New Competitive Strategy:

Political ads this season have in my observation managed to hit a new high in audacity and ridiculousness, correlating to a new low on my informal Fair Competition Meter.

Perhaps it’s the state that I live in: Illinois, where serving as Governor typically translates into indictment on several counts and some quality time in jail, but the attack ads are over the top this year. And darned funny in some cases.

I love (He says sarcastically) the ones that put some real heart into their production value. They typically start out with soft music, a soft voice and a pleasant scene, right before resolving into something that positions the hapless opponent as someone sent from the lowest tier of Dante’s Inferno on a mission to lure us back into the pit.  I would love to be a fly on the wall in the production meetings for these ridiculous commercials. Sadly, they probably do sway some voters.

My favorite dumb political ad comes from our friends up north in Winnipeg This video starts out with the expected claims about the incompetent incumbent mayor and resolves with what can only be described as an emmy-winning scene produced by complete morons.  I’m sorry, but I laughed out loud at the ending of this commercial, because I cannot believe that someone actually thought to package this scene and use the words, “And he kicks children in the face,” in an ad. (Note: it’s not clear whether this ad is genuine or a spoof, but enjoy the chuckle, and frankly, it’s not far off of what we’re seeing and hearing ever day.)

Six Ideas on Forming the Right Competitive Culture:

1. Choose to compete with class and professionalism. We all choose our style of competing in business. We have the opportunity to attack and assassinate the character of our competitors, or, we can go about winning business with class and professionalism. Opting for the latter doesn’t mean that you don’t compete with ferocity, it just means that you do so in a manner that allows you to comfortably look in the mirror at yourself.

2. Use negative competition as rocket fuel for your team. Competition is inherent in business (and life). Recognize it as fuel that catalyzes action and drives improvement. Use it to motivate, energize and foster innovation.

3. Don’t flirt with character disaster. The philosophy of “Win at All Costs” is an invitation to flirt with and engage in unethical behavior. Resist the flirtation. The cost of your character should be higher than winning the next deal.

4. Negative attacks showcase hollow strategies. Attacking competitors in front of your customer shows how weak and unarmed you truly are. The negative attack is the last resort of the desperate and incompetent. If you have no way to truly create value for your customer, your last and best attempt is to discredit your opponent. This is not a sustainable strategy.

5. Recognize that some people buy the negative sell and you cannot control it. Don’t reduce yourself to your competitor’s level and start launching missiles in return. Focus on solving problems, creating value and resist being baited into a war of mutual destruction.  You might lose once in awhile to your muck-raking competitor. That’s OK. The negative buyer is typically the worst kind of customer.

6. Don’t be baited into playing the game. It is good to understand your competitor’s style and tactics. However, resist the urge to build your messaging as a point-counter-point response. Instead, ensure that your process of engaging the client and building value for your offerings makes the negative attacks look like the childish, desperate attempts that they truly are.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Negative political ads are as old as this republic (and older), and likely won’t disappear anytime soon. That’s too bad. The same goes for negative tactics in business.  As a leader, you set the tone for how your firm and your team members compete. I vote to focus on creating meaningful differentiation from my competitors and to putting all of our energy into solving customer problems. While the noise from the muck-raking competitors is annoying, it’s rarely fatal to anyone other than those raking the muck in the first place.