Hardball Business

HBS Working Knowledge has a good piece on playing hardball. The most surprising part of the article? Sometimes you have to play hardball with yourself too.

One way to do this is by adopting hardball strategies of the kind we describe below. These by themselves can help release people's natural desire to win. But to really turn softball players into hardball players, you need to create and maintain in people a hardball attitude. This becomes more difficult as your advantage over competitors grows and people become complacent. As Kelleher said in a letter to all employees in the early 1990s, "The number one threat is us." He added: "We must not let success breed complacency; cockiness; greediness; laziness; indifference; preoccupation with nonessentials; bureaucracy; hierarchy; quarrelsomeness; or obliviousness to threats posed by the outside world."

To avoid such complacency, you need to foster a sense of urgency. Once, in response to United's launch of a competing service in several California cities that were served by Southwest, Kelleher dispatched a letter to employees with the headline "Commencement of Hostilities." Noting that United had more than 100 planes that could be "hurled against us" on the contested routes, he warned that "our stock price, our wages, our benefits, our job security, our expansion opportunities…are all on the line." In several cities where the competition was fiercest, Southwest employees came to work wearing camouflage outfits and battle helmets.

It's true. Too much competitive advantage can be a bad thing. Too much hardball can lead to overconfidence, which can lead to complacency, which can lead to a lack of competitive advantage.