Leadership: Do You Choose to Play in the Winners Zone or Not?

Our success, our feeling of accomplishment and our happiness, in our personal lives, as leaders, in our teams and in our businesses, it very much comes down to whether we ‘play to win’ or ‘play not to lose’. Are we truly aware of this? I strongly believe that this seemingly simple and superficial statement has a profound significance, which defines our success and that of the teams we lead.

People, teams, organizations, even whole nations can suffer from what I call a ‘playing in the not-winners zone’. I could call it the ‘losers zone’, but I don’t believe in a world of winners versus losers. We all win and lose sometimes; it’s part of life. However, we can influence the balance between winning and losing by building and nurturing a specific mindset in how we approach situations and circumstances. There is a clear distinction between a ‘playing in the winners zone’ – mindset versus ‘playing in the not-winners zone’ – mindset.

Playing to Win versus Playing Not to Lose

People who play in the ‘winners zone’ are busy maximizing the chance of winning and minimizing the chance of not winning.

People who play in the ‘not-winners zone’ are busy maximizing the chance of not losing and minimizing the chance of not winning.

Let this sink in! It seems obvious, but is in fact a crucial difference! It is a difference in mindset and behavior that is sometimes very subtle and not easy to recognize, but if you pay close attention you witness it all around you every day, maybe also in your own behavior. And it has a huge impact on the outcomes and success we create!

Playing in the ‘winners zone’ gives you a bigger chance of having a positive impact on your own and other people’s lives. It increases the chance to learn and grow, to innovate, to create positive change.

We are all human beings, and we are complex creatures. It is not always easy to adopt a ‘winners zone’ mindset, and we can find ourselves slipping into a ‘not winners’ mindset once in a while. It takes conscious choice, positive energy, courage, and endurance to pull ourselves into the winners zone.

“True and sustainable success arrives when we choose to play in the winners zone.”

A close friend challenged me the other day. She said: ‘I am not sure if I really believe in this focus on winning, in the end you can still lose without being able to prevent it. For example, what if you are a tree among a group of trees, and you have grown yourself into a nice strong, big, tall standing tree? You are the best tree in the group. So you get picked out and cut down, because you are the most successful tree of them all!’

I liked the example. It shows that the difference between playing to win versus playing not to lose is not a simple black and white / right or wrong comparison. It takes conscious consideration to figure out what success actually means to us. In this example it actually comes down to the following question: do you prefer to be that strong, beautiful tree that everybody looks up to and admires for its top quality wood, even if you might be cut down for it? Or would you choose not to grow big, but to stay a small weak tree with a few skimpy branches and brown leaves; a tree that is unnoticed, not used, and left behind?

Ask yourself:

  • Do I really aim for the best? Or do I have multiple goals in the back of my mind: best and second best?
  • Am I willing to put all my effort into reaching the best? Or do I keep a part of my energy aside?
  • Do I act pro-actively; do I choose to play offensively? Or do I act re-actively, and play defensively?
  • Do I perceive ‘not-winning’ as a learning experience, as getting one step closer to success? Or do I calculate the chance of ‘not-winning’, and accept it as a possible end state?
  • Do I always keep the desired end result as my standard? Or do I accept to ‘poor water into my wine’ and to lower the bar?
  • Do I want to inspire others and have a positive and lasting impact on people? Or do I want to maximize my personal gain and try to keep it?

Choose! In which zone do you want to play? And what about the people you’re leading?

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Photo: frankieleon/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

One Comment on “Leadership: Do You Choose to Play in the Winners Zone or Not?

  1. Hi Aad,
    I like this. I had never considered the fine difference between trying to win and trying not to lose. I remember learning that some people are motivated by fear of not having something and others are motivated by the idea of having that thing. Do you think it comes down to the way we’re wired? Can we change tht?


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