Addicted to Winning (Habit Series #1, pt 1)

Have you ever browsed the bargain section of Barnes & Noble and been automatically skeptical about the quality of the books? “This looks interesting…but why is it so cheap?” Because the only thing worse than being slightly dissatisfied with a full-priced book, is being fully dissatisfied with a discounted one you got tricked into buying. Right? So, I spend some time investigating a bargain book before I buy it.

That’s what happened with What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by leadership coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith. This book that I was skeptical about turned out to be a wealth of applicable insights on leader behavior, team building, and interpersonal influence.

One section of the book should be mandatory reading for every leader, especially we military leaders who have command authority to “fall back on” when personal leadership talent falters. It’s called “The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top.” Reading this section is like getting the results of a 360° peer feedback process without having to take the survey…eye-opening and humbling.

What I will do for this new series of blog posts is highlight a habit or two and apply them to the unique leadership environment we face in the military, giving examples and recommendations along the way. I encourage your participation in the Comments section, as I am certain that other leaders have experienced these habits and have useful insight to share.

That said, the first workplace habit that is holding back military leaders is…winning too much.


Sapper competitors complete the rope climbing portion of the obstacle course before sprinting to the finish line. The Best Sapper Competition gives engineers throughout the Army the opportunity to compete in a grueling six phase and three-day competition to determine who are the best engineers in the Army. DoD photo by Benjamin Faske. Link to photo.

Winning Too Much

Have you ever heard military folks call someone “not Type-A” and it’s clear they’re saying it’s a weakness? I know I have…a lot. It’s as if success in the military is predicated on being Type-A, dominant, decisive, and immutably victorious in every engagement.

Here’s another question:  when was the last time you heard a unit commander ask for feedback, consider the input, publicly admit he’s wrong, and change his opinion? If you can cite one instance in your career, then you’re lucky.

Winning is a core tenet of military leadership – it’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Winning in combat is non-negotiable. But has that belief strayed off of the battlefield to permeate the rest of military life, as well? Do we suffer from the “Win at all costs” attitude when dealing with people who aren’t the enemy, like our subordinates? Our staff? Our spouses?

Marshall Goldsmith says that winning too much is the most common behavior problem he sees in successful people.

There’s a fine line between being competitive and overcompetitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting – and successful people cross that line with alarming frequency. So many things we do to annoy people stem from needlessly trying to be the alpha male (or female) in any situation – i.e., the winner.

What Winning Looks Like

Here are a few examples of what “winning” in everyday military life looks like:

  • A staff member walks into the commander’s office with an update the commander happened to receive on email a few moments prior. The commander replies, “Yeah, I knew that already,” making it clear that he holds informational power over the subordinate.
  • A platoon leader receives an award at the end of a deployment but fails to thank his Soldiers, the people who did the hard work that enabled his success (and probably kept him alive).
  • The unit Command Sergeant Major walks by a squad leader giving a class on weapons disassembly, but the junior leader isn’t teaching it exactly how the CSM would do it. So, the CSM takes over the class, undermining the squad leader’s influence.
  • Following an iteration live-fire training, the company commander seeks out the battalion commander to ask if his company did it better than the other two companies (need to win), instead of asking what else he could have done better.
  • The operations officer informs the battalion commander, “Sir, it sounds like the Commanding General is going to visit the training area today.” The commander decides to sit on the information instead of informing his adjacent commanders, who are also training, because he wants to be more prepared than they are.
  • A vehicle mechanic discovers a new way to change a part and shows his supervisor, who silently agrees that the new method is faster, but is threatened by the young Soldier’s creativity and won’t acknowledge his efforts.

What other examples can you think of?

In the next part of Habit #1, I’ll share my thoughts on why I think most military leaders are so dedicated to winning at everything. And I’ll relate what Marshall Goldsmith calls “The Success Delusion” and how it’s both good and bad news for military leaders.

Questions for Leaders

  • Can you name one area in which you are okay with not winning?
  • Is your need to be seen as the victor stifling your ability to build your team?
  • How can you adjust your leadership environment to foster an atmosphere of cooperation, not competitiveness?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Chris

    I’ve lived in an environment where the “combat non-negotiable” was allowed to “permeate the rest of military life”. It stifled healthy leader development, team building, creativity, and morale while the leader attrition rate sky-rocketed due to ETS, REFRAD, etc. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t solved when the individual’s self-serving quest for flawless victory is identified. Since the behavior failed to be corrected, the organization became stagnant because subordinate units wouldn’t deviate from pre-approved courses for every situation, no matter how small.

    On the flip side, I’ve also had the distinct pleasure to work where “losing” was allowed and built upon. I learned a hell of a lot more in a short amount of time. Looking forward to Part II.

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  • Eric Jnah

    I have been guilty of Habit #1 not only at work, but at home as well. As military leaders we tend to try to win at all costs and do not realize that this becomes counterproductive at times. We don’t realize the inadvertant damage caused by this behavior.

    As leaders we are responsible for creating a collaborative environment which reaps greater cooperation, productivity and effectiveness. This requires conscious effort. I am personally looking for ways to further instill this in my shop and to stop trying to “win.” Dr. Henry Cloud’s Boundaries for Leaders is a good book that addresses the topic.

    I am also guilty of Habit #2: Adding too much value. This is easy to do when you feel you are the most experienced one in your organization. Over this past I have made an effort to avoid adding my 2 cents to each conversation. I will need to continue this effort in 2015 as I am still guilty of it at times.

    • Thanks, Eric!
      In the book, Marshall Goldsmith does a fantastic job of writing about the habits in a way that does exactly what you mentioned…helps you realize that you’re guilty! It’s amazing how subtle behavior by military leaders, especially commanders, can turn into influence…both for good and bad.
      I heard a good quote ref Habit #2, by AF General “Fig” Newton: “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” Awesome!