What’s at Stake in a Nail-Biting Election?

A horse race is a close, highly competitive contest. The word has also taken on political connotations, referring to nail-biting elections.

When journalists focus primarily on who’s winning or losing, instead of policy issues – what’s known as “horse race coverage” – voters, candidates and the news industry suffer, research shows. The horse race approach is most common in close races and in the weeks leading up to Election Day, and it’s more prevalent at newspapers with single owners or corporate chains.

The mud-slinging, name calling and attack ads that characterize many campaigns can obscure important differences between the candidates. They can also distract from what’s at stake for the nation. This horse race is no exception, but it’s worth stepping back to consider what’s at risk if we don’t get the race right.

Historically, the sport of horse racing evolved out of the ancient practice of chariot races. The ancient Greeks used chariots pulled by powerful horses to compete in athletic contests. Later, the ancient Romans adapted this concept, introducing horse races with chariots and other animals to the games.

As horse racing became more popular, it became necessary to develop rules and regulations that made the sport safer for both horses and humans. Eventually, the horse race became a form of entertainment that drew crowds of thousands.

Horses need to be well-conditioned and have a strong physical structure to handle the demands of sprinting and long-distance racing. To meet these demands, horses are bred to be fast and have an excellent pedigree. The pedigree of a racehorse is determined by its parents, with the most valuable horses having pedigrees that are purebred and registered.

In addition to rigorous training, horses must be protected from injury and death by strict safety regulations. This includes requiring a necropsy and thorough investigation when a horse dies on-track, and following protocol that requires a review of contributing factors and interviewing stakeholders. Despite these efforts, horses continue to be injured and killed at an alarming rate.

When a company conducts a horse race to choose a new CEO, the process can have significant ramifications for the rest of the organization. A protracted leadership horse race can demoralize employees and damage business momentum. It can also hurt the company’s ability to fill top management positions by limiting the pool of high-performing internal candidates who are willing to vie for the job.

Fortunately, some companies have managed to overcome these challenges and use the horse race model effectively. The key is to cultivate a culture that embraces competition for the top job and the notion that the best leader will emerge from the process. This requires a board that supports the horse race and a senior team that is committed to developing people through a range of functional assignments, stretch opportunities and even challenging roles at other companies. In a well-run horse race, the board and senior leaders also create an environment in which everyone understands that the next opportunity could be their own.