Evaluating success or failure is always difficult. One of the reasons why I enjoy playing and watching sports is that there is usually a winner and loser, at least in the three major American sports; basketball, baseball and football. On the other hand, surgeons will often say “I did my best,” rather than pronounce success or failure. Doctors are evaluated according to “faute de moyen,” not “faute de resultat.” The mantras of sports and business are win or lose, make money or lose money; no one wants to know how hard you tried.
Roger Federer has now lost in three consecutive tennis tournaments to players he would have beaten easily when he was dominating the sport. In the past month, the Swiss star, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, has lost to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, No. 114 Federico Delbonis at Hamburg, and now No. 55 ranked Daniel Brands in only the second round at the Swiss Open. Federer has fallen to No. 5, his lowest ranking since he won Wimbledon in 2003.
Should Federer retire? Are his poor performances due to an injury? Is he spending too much time with his daughters? Is he the victim of a lack of motivation? Is he having problems adjusting to a new racket? All of the above questions are valid and follow from his poor performances. But most importantly, we know he has played badly because he has lost. The questions follow from that fact. We don’t really care about his efforts; we don’t care about how much time he is practicing or what he did during his long layoff. Federer is (was) admired because he was a winner; 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, 17 Grand Slam titles, an Olympic Gold Medal in doubles. Yes, he is charming, a gentleman, an outstanding ambassador for tennis, Rolex, Credit Suisse and Switzerland. All of that follows because he is (was) a winner.
Can we use the criteria of results in other activities besides sports and business? In various universities, professors are now being paid according to how many students take their courses, how much research money they generate, how many successful theses they advise. New university administrators are more and more graduates of business schools who use bottom line criteria. Academia is imitating the corporate world, what has been called the corporatization of the university.
And what about international organizations? Can we apply the corporate model to them as well? The Doha Round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization have been going on for a decade with no conclusion. The outgoing Director, Pascal Lamy, is being feted without having achieved the conclusion of the negotiations he was responsible for. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has had little success in 17 years, much of the time consumed over diplomatic squabbling about establishing an agenda, although many argue that the process of negotiation is as important as the result. Should the WTO and the Conference on Disarmament be punished, or suspended, or shut down because they have not achieved results? Should the diplomats be rewarded for their efforts just like doctors? The absence of bottom line results has eroded much public support for international organizations.
But, diplomatic negotiations are far different from tennis matches or businesses. For example, the FARC and the Government of Colombia have been in discussions for over 30 years with minimum results. Dennis Ross of the United States spent over 20 years of his career trying to find a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with very few results. We certainly accept that “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” in Churchill’s wonderful phrase. But at what point do we ignore meritocracy or bottom line results to evaluate only an effort or process? For how long do we turn a blind eye and say “Keep trying,” instead of admitting defeat?
It will be a sad day for all tennis fans when Roger Federer retires. But there is nothing eternal in sports. Stars rise and fall. One of my favorite places in Geneva is the room where the League of Nations folded. Organizations may evolve, but they seldom close down because they are based on effort, not bottom line results. As the universities are being corporatized, is it realistic to use bottom line results for diplomacy or international organizations? While we can quantify how much money International Geneva brings to the city and canton, can we estimate the value of having the Syrian negotiations in Geneva? The Geneva Initiative for the Middle East, the future Geneva meetings on Syria confirm the role of the city of Geneva as a symbol of peace, just as Roger Federer symbolized Swiss excellence.
Federer was a winner. His other qualities were important only because of that. No one in the world cares if the 270th ranked player is a gentleman, except maybe his family. If the Doha Round continues to stagnate, if the Conference on Disarmament continues to lack an agenda, I sense that our bottom line world will not be impressed by new or refurbished buildings. People like results, whether in business, sports, diplomacy or politics. Only doctors can get away with saying “I did my best,” or diplomats proudly showing how relevant it is to have all parties involved in the process. Corporatization is with us whether we like it or not. All of Roger’s wonderful qualities will quickly be forgotten if he doesn’t start winning again.
July 29, 2013