Do you play to win, or not to lose?

Every leader, in every situation, faces a choice: do you play to win or do you play not to lose?

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It’s been both intriguing and demoralising watching Brexit unfold living as a Brit in the Netherlannds in the United Kingdom.

Politics aside, the Brexit Story provides a fascinating insight in how leaders lead. We can expect many books and documentaries on the subject, but one thing is abundantly clear: every leader, in every situation, faces a choice: do you play to win or do you play not to lose?

Playing not to lose is fundamentally born out of fear and is characterised by certain key behaviours.

Decisions are reactive and born out of insecurity and fear. Fear of not being in control, of losing money, of not being accepted, fear of failure or fear of being caught out.

There is no clear vision or sense of purpose — decisions are made based on what causes the least damage to the individual involved. There is no connection to a larger vision.The ego rules.

Leaders are mainly operating from three behaviours: controlling, protecting and complying. These are not inherently negative, we need leaders who can control, protect and comply. The difference is whether you are exhibiting these behaviours out of a choice or our of fear.

The overwhelming driver in all three behaviours is how I, as a leader, can calm the voice of fear in my head.

And what is the impact on results, effectiveness and performance?

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Effectiveness/Time for Reactive Behaviours — short term effectiveness is mitigated against by a lack of long term growth or sustainability

Playing not to lose delivers quick wins in effectiveness. It’s a sprint — and it’s always faster and often more profitable — but in the short term. You win the first leg but lose the race. Share Holders might love it. But it’s unsustainable, people quickly tire, results platear or worst and long term impact is minimal.

Personally, I have excelled in playing not to lose.

I was running a business with staff, regular bills and irregular income. I was immersed, felt trapped, suffering from anxiety and firmly in my reactive behaviours. I would turn up on Monday, see the figures, panic and start calling clients trying to find some work. It would usually fix the problem, at least until the following month. Each month I vowed it would be different. It never was. Once you’re in that cycle, it takes a lot of energy, and courage to step out of it. Results are good in the short term but there is not space, no forward thinking, no joy, no happiness and next month it’s the same routine again.

It results in a negative feedback loop, pleasing investors interested in quick returns and leaders who want their Christmas bonus.

Before we look at playing to win, let’s briefly look at Robert Kegan and the various stages in the development of people that he identified. Kegan identifies five in total but we are really only interest in the first four.

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Robert Kegan’s Four Stages of Development

Egocentric- the baby- who demands everything when he/she wants it — but gives very little in return. In this case my daughter, who has egocentric behaviour down to a fine art — and good job too. It’s primal, survival mode and exactly where she needs to be.

Reactive- the teenager — scared about the world they are entering, unsure of their identity, stuck in the no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood. No. Why should I? Shouting. Irrational. Get stuff done but hard work.

Creative- the adult — surer in who they are and what they want. They are willing to create outcome that get them in the direction they want to be. They tend to be more purpose driven in their decision making.

Integral the wise old man who is able to tap into the inner wisdom, which we all have, but we normally do not know how to access. This wisdom is used for the greater good of mankind, in what ever way. We mention people like Ghandi, Mandela if we think of people who reached this level of inner development.

According to Kegan, 70% of leaders are operating from their reactive. Unsure who they are, leading out of fear and leading not to lose.

(for the record: 5% are egocentric, 20% creative and 5% integral)

Is there an alternative? Can we play to win and what does that look like?

Where playing not to lose is about reactive behaviour, playing to win is about creating outcomes. It is characterised by the following behaviours.

My emphasis is on creating positive outcomes towards my goals.

My decision making is rooted in a clear purpose or vision.

Focus and passion drive my actions.

I act out of who I am, and from that place, I am in relationship with others.

I may get grumpy and be disappointed by poor performance or results — but I first look to myself and what I can do different to support my team in leading in their own strength.

And what does it mean for results, effectiveness and performance?

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Effectiveness/Time for Creative Behaviours — short term effectiveness is lower as decisions are made from a passion to further the purpose

Performance and results will be slower to gain momentum. You won’t necessarily see the quarterly success of “playing not to lose” but in the long term: you build business, people, team and relationships that are robust, sustainable and profitable.

According to Kegan and referenced by The Leadership Circle, 20% of leader are living from a creative outcome perspective.

I have played not to lose — it’s draining, hard work, demoralising — for everyone. The rewards and the relationships are short lived. I have worked to change my mindset, to be purpose and passion driven and to create a long-term, sustainable business.

FORTY, the organisation I founded with a few like minded people is purpose and passion driven. Our purpose is to unleash people and our passion to work with clients and who want the same. That drives every aspect of our business.

Whether, as individuals, we are for or against Brexit — the outcome is a mess and it was not led (or at least does not appear to have been) with a strong vision of what the United Kingdom could be after Brexit, it was not led out of passion for the future we would build or the long term benefits for future generations. It was a reactionary vote and a reactionary negotiation lead out of fear for the unknown, fear of political reaction, fear of being ostracised and fear of losing.

Brexit aside, the 70% of leaders who are leading from their creative have created amazing success, beautiful businesses and wonderful organisation. Look at the skyline of London, Amsterdam or New York. Beautiful companies with beautifiul people…

…But imagine what business could be like if those same leaders played to win rather than playing not to lose. If they choose to step in to and focus on creative outcomes to further their purpose, rather than the limitation of their reactive behaviours.

We would create truly awe inspiring organisations.

Thanks to Yvonne Looye at FORTY for her contribution and wisdom.

Written by

I’m a partner at FORTY, a business committed to helping organisations unleash the power, beauty and wholeness of their people.

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