Are you really playing to win – or just trying to avoid losing?

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Achieve Breakthrough

Written by Achieve Breakthrough

Are you really playing to win – or just trying to avoid losing?

Playing to win is one of the most common sporting aphorisms used in business. Leaders, managers and individuals within teams all want to feel that they are winning, triumphing over their competition and securing the biggest prizes. But putting aside the tubthumping can we honestly say we are truly committed to winning – or merely concerned about not losing? Protection of what you have, be it market share, reputation or predictable revenues is a natural instinct and can be a significant brake on going ‘all-out.’ The same is true for individuals. Leaders want to make a mark, but not go down as the CEO who threw it all away; individuals want to challenge and move up the ranks but need to protect their reputations (and their salaries). Understanding and managing this tension between purpose and safety is critical to a leadership mindset.


Purpose drives passion and action

Great leaders are driven by purpose that creates passion and energy to achieve the impossible. They make bold declarations of their vision and successfully enrol their teams and organisations to commit to it. These are the foundations of playing all out to win. It does not mean that these leaders have no concern for safety, or act without control. But they are able to achieve a balance between natural inclinations to preserve and protect, and their creative ambition. So, what are the practical steps that leaders can take to show up more as purpose-driven? How can they effectively manage the safety-driven aspects of their leadership and free themselves to win?


Reinvent the game

Playing to win starts with the bold declaration of what success looks like. To achieve breakthrough performance leaders must inhabit and make real a future that is radically different from simply doing more of the same. This is the essential, and brave, first move. It is the business equivalent of William Webb Ellis picking up and running with the ball. No longer content with winning the existing game but digging deep into purpose and finding a passion to create something entirely new.

Taking a stand for this bold future does not mean ignoring the safety and control factors that pull in the opposite direction. Rather it means leaning into them. To win, and win consistently and spectacularly, leaders need to honestly evaluate the elements that concern, restrict and limit the thinking and performance of themselves and the teams they lead. Seeing and paying attention to the context in which they operate can often reveal that fears are assumptions rather than facts. The way things have been done before, or the restrictions of past performance can manifest as fears that limit progress. What leaders need to avoid is thinking driven by avoiding problems rather than embracing opportunities.


What’s at Stake?

To accomplish this, they need to simultaneously put themselves at stake and to be clear on exactly what that ‘at-stakeness’ entails. For leaders publicly declaring a bold potential future, it is that vision that is at stake. Whether it comes to pass or not is what is being risked – and full commitment to it will allow you to play to win. If what’s at stake is the current status quo, the old ways of doing things, your status as a leader, or even the incremental gains of previous performance, however good, then ultimately you are only ever playing not to lose.

Leaders that demonstrate that many mental safety structures are assumptions not facts, and only protect the past, will unleash freedom across their teams. Freedom to innovate, to challenge, to fall and to learn from setbacks. When what’s at stake is a future that they and their teams are committed to and passionate about, everyone is empowered to call out the inevitable breakdowns along the way. Winning is not guaranteed; obstacles and challenges must be overcome. But an openness to examine what’s needed and what’s missing means that leaders and teams can quickly collaborate to create new solutions. Playing to win is a creative, energy-enhancing attitude that thrives on innovation to overcome breakdowns rather than retreating to the safety of ‘tried and tested’ formulas.


What’s safe can become dangerous

The opposite, playing not to lose, may feel more comfortable at the time. Doing what’s easy rather than what is right can be a tempting direction. But ultimately, not being true to your purpose, not living according to your values, becomes toxic. Leadership begins to feel like constant firefighting, struggling to keep up. Playing defence is tiring and allowing the safety end of the equation to dominate sucks energy from teams. Those constantly working to protect what they have will ultimately feel less fulfilled. The daily energy-sapping efforts to maintain or better last year’s performance leads to burnt-out teams, high turnover and plateauing performance. Heeding the siren call of ‘what we’ve always done,’ could be the most dangerous risk to take.

Going all out to win takes bravery. But it is not reckless; it is necessary in today’s volatile environments. There will always be tension between purpose and safety and there are always occasions where safety is the necessary option. But leaders who can create true purpose and place it at the heart of their strategies will instil vitality into team cultures and create environments where everyone is committed to always playing to win. They will be better prepared, more agile and more engaged to overcome challenges and change the game to fit their purpose.


Published 01/02/2023

Subscribe by Email

Achieve more breakthroughs. Get expert leadership ideas, insights and advice straight to your inbox every Saturday, as well as the occasional bit of news on us, such as offers and invitations to participate in things like events, webinars and surveys. Read. Lead. Breakthrough.