A Pyrrhic Victory

In 279 B.C., in the hills of southeastern Italy near Asculum, a Roman army numbering into the tens of thousands battled for two days against a like-sized Greek army and their 20 war elephants. The Greeks were under the command of King Pyrrhus. According to the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, Pyrrhus was the greatest general the world had seen since Alexander the Great.

On the first day the two sides fought an indecisive battle and accomplished little. The next day the Romans were forced back, but Pyrrhus was unable to capture their camp. Finally, at the end of the day, seeing the futility of continuing, the armies separated.

According to the first-century historian Plutarch, the Romans lost 6,000 men and the Greeks more than 3,500. It was a costly victory for Pyrrhus. Plutarch relates that at dawn the next morning, in response to congratulations for his victory over the Romans, Pyrrhus confessed, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” The battle had been won at too high a cost. Although they never defeated Pyrrhus on the field, the Romans were able to win a war of attrition. Henceforth, no soldier would cheer a Pyrrhic victory.

As Pyrrhus admitted, some victories can effectively undo a person. From time to time, we, too, have battles to fight that may not be worth the price of winning. For example, coming out on top in an argument can actually destroy our influence and cost us a relationship. If we are not careful, we can let the situation and our ego get the best of us. But it requires a lot of self-discipline to prevent our own Pyrrhic victories. Lady Dorothy Nevill once remarked, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

If we place winning an argument—the urge to be right—as the most important thing, we have lost perspective. We win the battle but lose the war.

In Pearls of Wisdom, psychologist Joyce Brothers wrote, “There is a rule in sailing where the more maneuverable ship should give way to the less maneuverable craft. I think this is sometimes a good rule to follow in human relationships as well.” Relationships are more important than the situations we find ourselves in. If we are “right” enough to win, we should be smart enough to be the more maneuverable ship. Being immovable or stubborn, just because we are right, doesn’t move us closer to our goal. As the more maneuverable party, we should step back, bend, or give way and let the other person pass. Later we might try a different tack if it is really important to make the point. Hitting a difficult person head on is rarely the appropriate action.

When we come up against conflict, we must start by looking honestly at our motivations and asking ourselves whether winning is really that important. Am I pursuing this conflict just for the sake of winning? How will winning affect my ability to work with this person?

We need to keep the big picture in mind and realize that we don’t need to fight every battle. We should choose battles that, in the final analysis, will strengthen our relationships and improve our effectiveness.