Increasing Competitive Capacity

by Stephen T. Messenger

March 15, 2021

While I always strive my hardest to place first in anything I do, rarely do I actually finish there.  In fact, I can only think of two times when I was first in any school, competition, or evaluation.  Even though I don’t take home the trophy often, I can claim that I’m consistently competitive.  I attribute placing high, but not first, on two foundational principles: hard work and continuous learning.  Combining these two qualities can move an average guy, like myself, to routinely competing with talented peers.

John Kotter, noted leadership author, calls this competitive capacity[i].  This is the ability to deal with an increasingly competitive and fast-moving environment.  Things will always change around you, and to continue to compete for first, leaders have to change accordingly.  To slightly riff off high school basketball coach John Notke’s saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent isn’t working hard enough.”

Kotter’s model talks about everyone having a unique, personal history in addition to natural skills and abilities.  These two factors are the foundation for your competitive capacity.  Ultimately, this is talent.  Everyone is born with different levels of it.  But to get the most out of your abilities, you can’t just use it; you have to continually improve it.

My theory of creating a competitive advantage through hard work and continuous learning mirrors Kotter’s model.  He, more accurately, calls these two categories competitive drive and lifelong learning.

Competitive Drive.  A leader must sincerely desire to always be at the top of their game.  When I know someone is attending a school, I encourage them to be the honor grad.  This is the gold standard for any educational setting, be it a two-week course or multi-year degree.  Leaders must tackle any school, competition, or grading event knowing they have the ability to place first. 

They need to start with a desire to excel and hold themselves to the highest standards by outworking those around them.  Honor grad or bust!  This first category is about generating short-term wins to improve disciplines in many different areas and maintain pace with those around you.

Lifelong Learner.  The second category focuses on long-term growth.  These leaders seek new challenges and reflect on their behavior after both success and failure.  This of course includes professional education and certificates along with company-sponsored training events. 

More importantly, it includes self-learning such as independent reading plans, learning from experts, and teaching others in turn.  It is challenging yourself in a number of different areas physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.  You can accomplish lifelong learning through countless ways; the key is to sustain this over time and continuously grow.

These two categories increase competitive capacity over time which creates opportunities.  For example, my attendance in a year-long Army school (Command and General Staff College) as a lifelong learner, coupled with a competitive drive to excel, created a path to a second year of follow-on education (School of Advanced Military Studies).  At my next job, this second school, augmented by hard work, then opened the door to be selected to join a senior leader’s personal team (Commander’s Action Group).  A snowball effect such as this then leads to additional personal growth, diverse experiences, and more chances to compete for additional opportunities.  

Kotter elaborates on this by defining the power of compound growth[ii].  He cites two employees who are equal in their leadership abilities. If they were to grow at separate but steady rates of competitive drive and lifelong learning, they would be at drastically different levels twenty years later. 

Imagine they both start at, say, 100 units of competitive capacity.  The first leader improves 1% every year while the second improves at a 6% rate.  Over two decades, the difference will be 122 versus 321 units!  Investing in your growth exponentially increases your abilities.

You can increase your competitive capacity through consistent hard work and continuous learning.  I equate this as living up to your Maximum Standard.  You must constantly challenge yourself through audacious goals and leadership growth to help you achieve compound results opening doors and opportunity.

We all have natural talents, skills, and backgrounds that have brought us personal success. However, the market is constantly changing, and you need to change with it. Your challenge is to harness your competitive drive and lifelong learning to maximize your competitive capacity.


[i] John Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 179.

[ii] Kotter, 181.

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