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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 23 September 2005
It is important to make a distinction between recreation and competition, both of which can have great value and are most obvious in athletics as well as in the business world. According to Stalk and Lachenauer, "Softball players have no competitive advantage or, if they have one, may not know what it is or may be unable to exploit it. Often softballers can drift along for years, finding ways -- through trade loading, for example, or cost cutting -- to stay afloat from quarter to quarter. A few may seek to disguise their poor performance through activities -- such as creating shell customers -- that are questionable, if not illegal. In the parlance of pitching, such companies are throwing junk."

The focus of this book is on winners in business who have always played hardball: those who "use every legitimate resource and strategy available to them to gain advantage over their competitors...[and by doing so] attract more customers, gain market share, boost profits, reward their employees, and weaken their competitors' positions." Hardballers are wholly committed to winning "the game" and do so, key point, by always playing by its "rules." Their goal is always decisive victory so as to sustain dominance. With regard to social responsibility, it is noteworthy that Stalk and Lachenauer quote Milton Friedman's observation that there is "one and only one" in business: "...to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

In a company playing hardball, it is the leader's main role to keep alive the quest for competitive advantage and engage everyone else in that quest, constantly maintaining total focus on what Stalk and Lachenauer refer to as "the heart of the matter --- a very small set of vital issues whose resolution will determine the future of the organization." Obviously, Stalk and Lachenauer take a no-nonsense approach to playing to win. "Sometimes hardball players have to play a little rough and, when they do, they don't apologize for it." It is important to remember that the hardball perspective includes employees as well as customers, vendors, and service providers as well as competitors. Expectations are high and there is zero-tolerance of anything less than a best effort. When creating discomfort for others, hardballers must be willing and able to tolerate it themselves. They know what it means when claiming "We mean business." They do.

Think about the most successful professional teams such as the Boston Celtics, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Yankees, and Montreal Canadiens. Members of each of their championship teams made all manner of personal sacrifices to achieve their team's success. I recall Jack Dempsey's comment that "champions get up when they can't." The most successful athletic teams are renowned for gaining and then sustaining dominance over an opponent. They work harder and they play smarter. And they always play by the rules, viewing with contempt those who don't. The same is also true of those companies whose names reappear year after year on the annual list of the Fortune 500, most of which also appear on Fortune's annual list of the Most Admired Companies. Not a coincidence.

I expect this book to generate a great deal of discussion because Stalk and Lachenauer take a hardball attitude toward their reader: "Are you playing to play or playing to win?" Hardballers know who they are. For them, this book states what is already obvious to them. As for softballers, this book can serve as a reality check. Hopefully they will read it and learn from it before it is too late, then make necessary adjustments of their mindset and behavior.
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Being a winner in business means acting like a winner. That requires having an aggressive mindset, not settling for second best and recognizing opportunity. Not every company or executive has the stomach to play hardball. Kicking an opponent when he's down, reneging on a compromise or having to make decisions that your managers will hate is never easy. But the business landscape is littered with the skeletons of companies that settled for "good, not great," only to be blindsided by competitors who played for keeps. Authors George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer clearly believe that "nice guy" and "business leader" live in different worlds and although some of their "hardball" tactics aren't all that tough or fresh, some clearly are. They say you have two basic choices: be the predator or the prey. We recommend this book to those who want to be the boss beast in that jungle out there.
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