Fighting to Win in Leadership (Part 2) – How to Get There

Lee Ellis - Fight to Win Image

(Editor’s Note: We featured Part 1 of this article in January 2013 and intentionally waited until the middle of the year to post this second post. We encourage you to reflect on the time that has passed this year and evaluate how you’ve fought to win this year. This article is an excerpt from Chapter 5 in Lee’s book, Leading with Honor.)

Other personality styles focus their drive on a more limited set of goals. For example, some athletes are extremely competitive when engaging in their sport, but are not so driven in other areas. I witnessed this a few years ago while providing career coaching to professional athletes who were approaching retirement. One All-Pro NFL football player was a fierce competitor on the field, but he was relaxed and somewhat laid back when engaged in other activities. His drive to win centered on his passion for the game. It was fueled by his desire to be the best in his field.

On another consulting assignment where I was asked to assess the personality traits of various store managers, I encountered one leader who measured quite low in the area of drive. She was very successful on the job, however, so we dug deeper. It turned out that her drive came from a strong motivation in two seemingly unrelated areas: to provide great customer service and to creatively present innovative products and services.

Driving Dominant Personalities

In some individuals this pioneering drive is a dominant personality trait that affects broad areas of their lives; these people will fight to win at every undertaking. Others who might be world-class performers in their profession might have that same kind of fight in only a few endeavors; it’s just the way they are wired. Good leaders have a knack for identifying the sources of each individual’s unique drive to win, and then tapping into it for the benefit of the organization and the individual.

“Good leaders have a knack for identifying the sources of each individual’s unique drive to win, and then tapping into it for the benefit of the organization and the individual.”

Fighter pilots by nature are competitive. They have to be, because they’re trained to engage in life-and-death combat. But in most work environments, ultra-high competitiveness is counterproductive. “Fighting” needs to fit the environment and the situation. In all organizations, striving to win at the expense of others is a losing proposition. An insatiable need to always be right and win every argument can derail relationships and even careers.

Fight for Win-Win Outcomes

On several occasions I’ve been asked to coach executives who were outstanding in almost every way, except they had excessive drive. Some were so dominant they could not cooperate with their teammates, and at times they even bucked their boss. They made a habit of turning discussions about minor issues into arguments. These individuals were good people with good intentions, but they could not see that their behaviors were out of balance. My job was to help them become aware in the moment of the situational dynamics, so they could then learn to manage their interactions in a successful way.

I’ll never forget one individual who called to tell me about his success. He said that after a staff meeting one of his peers came to him and asked him if he was feeling okay.

He replied, “Sure, why do you ask?”

His peer responded, “You were not yourself today in the meeting. You were quieter than usual and didn’t get into any arguments.”

My client was quite proud of his achievements, and so was I. He didn’t reinvent himself, but he did learn to manage his natural drive to win. His career has continued upward, and he now manages a large segment of a Fortune 100 company.

Check Your Motives

Drive is a helpful quality, but like most other leadership traits, it can be powered by inappropriate motivations. When individuals allow unbridled ambition, greed, or other unhealthy needs to fuel their desire to win, the results are almost invariably destructive for that person and for the organization. Legitimate needs and worthwhile goals are seldom met when “steamroller” methods are used to pursue selfish desires. When fighting to win, know when to fight. Sometimes you have to withdraw from the battle for a while. As POWs, there came a time during torture when it was evident we could not beat them at their game. We had to find a different approach for achieving our goals. When you know for sure you can’t win, it’s probably time to quit doing what you’re doing and rethink your strategy. But before throwing in the towel, check with your teammates, your mentor, or others you trust to get their counsel. And, keep in mind the “First Law of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging!”

“When you know for sure you can’t win, it’s probably time to quit doing what you’re doing and rethink your strategy.”

Outstanding leaders seek to understand the true nature of their own motivations and the motivations of those they lead, and then they make adjustments as necessary. As Jim Collins points out in his bestselling book Good to Great, the best leaders are typically highly competitive, but they harness that competitiveness for the good of the organization, not to boost their own egos.

Are your drive and ambition focused on helping the team succeed? Does your drive to win interfere with your relationships? If your drive is too intense or too weak, in what ways might you be hurting the team? How could you find out how you are affecting others? Share your thoughts.


Article Series Link: Fighting to Win (Part 1)

Lee Ellis 
is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC® & FreedomStar Media™.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Book | Facebook | Twitter

He is the author of Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

Leave a Reply