When I was at dinner with my colleague Marjorie, a successful entrepreneur, we began talking about why some businesses seem to get stuck at “good” and never quite make it to “great” as described in Jim Collin’s well-known book on the same topic. We agreed that much of the responsibility lies with the business leader. But why does this happen?

Are You In It to Win It?

She turned to me and said that she had recently been asked by a colleague if she is in business to win – or just not to lose. It was a distinction I had never heard before, but I was immediately intrigued by the nuance between approaching personal and professional initiatives with a strategy to win versus a strategy to maintain status quo and simply focus on ‘not losing.’

Like all of you, I went to the Internet and did a search on ‘winning versus not losing’ and was faced with 409,000,000 results. I guess others have heard this message, even though it was new for me!

What the Data Shows

What I learned by visiting some of those sites was that there is a distinct difference between the two attitudes. In article after article, the idea of playing to win or not to lose was dissected and examined.  The industry doesn’t matter; the size of the company isn’t a factor; whether the organization sells services or products doesn’t count. When talking about playing to win or playing not to lose, it all really boils down to intent and attitude.

The Difference Between Playing to Win and Playing Not to Lose

While I had not previously been aware of this concept, through my research I discovered that Harvard Business Review had tackled the issue five years ago in March 2013, when they noted that leaders who play not to lose, “…worry about what might go wrong if they don’t work hard enough or aren’t careful enough. They are vigilant and play to not lose, to hang on to what they have, to maintain the status quo.”

But what if you are a leader who wants to build a dynamic, impressive, prominent company – what are the characteristics you will need to get the job done? On April 16, 2016, in his article, ‘Playing to Win or Playing Not to Lose,’ author and sales expert Anthony Iannarino gives this advice: 

“If you are playing to win, you do whatever is necessary to move things forward. You aggressively try to put points on the board. You’re not reckless, but you’re certainly not passive. When you play to win, you make the call that you fear. You have the difficult conversation. You deal with the tricky issues that may put your outcomes at risk if things go south on you.”

However, he continues to remind his readers, “If you are playing to ‘not lose,’ you’re cautious. Probably overly-cautious. You want to avoid mistakes, so you hold back. Instead of doing what you know you need to do, you wait to react. Instead of using all of your power to tilt things in your direction, you wait. You don’t act because you are fearful that anything you do will put your deal at risk. You don’t make the call to your dream client because they said they needed time to think things over. You avoid talking about your price because you worry that your prospect will say it’s too high.”

What Are Your Leadership Goals?

Does this sound all too familiar to you? It is difficult to take on challenges as a leader in a company that involve risk and doubt. After all, you have an obligation to your employees, vendors, customers and the community to build and sustain a profitable, contributing company. What if you make a mistake? What if you go for the gold – and come up empty handed?   It is not you alone who loses, but the entire company. Making safer, less bold decisions may sound like the more prudent path.

But…Avoiding Failure so as Not to Lose May Not Be the Best Answer

On the website www.wholeheartedleaders.com there is an article signed only by ‘David’ written on November 26, 2014 that recounts an exchange he had with a business owner who confessed he had been leading his company with a focus on not losing. David shares this story, (calling the owner’s self-realization profound), to encourage other leaders to think about their own style and their company’s situation.  He asks his audience if they are willing to lead by taking chances or whether they are letting fear lead them.

He writes, “We can lead and live half-heartedly for a number of reasons, but I think it boils down to two primary fears: fear of not having what it takes, and fear of failure.  We can be afraid that we don’t have what it takes to do what is necessary.  We can also be afraid to fail.  The outcome of these two fears is the same – half-heartedness. Half-heartedness is also known as playing not to lose.”

Is There A Better Way?

Over the centuries we have learned that failing should not be something to avoid at all costs. In fact, it is only by failing that we learn (as individuals and as business leaders) how to improve, how to grow, and how to be our best. We are all smarter when we make a mistake and find the solution that enables us to recover from it.

When talking about the importance of making mistakes, have you ever heard the famous story of how 3M created Post-it Notes?

Post-It Notes Were Invented by Accident: It Was Deemed a Failure!!

Two ‘accidents’ lead to the invention of the Post-It note.  In 1968, Spencer Silver was working at 3M trying to create super strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry.  Instead of a super strong adhesive, though, he accidentally managed to create an incredibly weak, pressure sensitive adhesive agent that did not interest 3M management as it was seen as too weak to be useful.  Despite having notable features that enabled it to be peeled away easily without leaving a residue and sticking to almost any surface, no one, not even Silver himself, could think up a good marketable use for it.  Now came the second ‘accident,’ spear headed by chemical engineer Art Fry. Working with two other 3M employees, Roger Merrill and Henry Courtney, Fry resurrected the product once again. Finally, in 1977 3M began running test sale runs of the Post-It note, then called “Press ‘n Peel.” After five years of constant rejection for the adhesive and another seven years in development and initial rejection, Post-It notes were finally a hit - and have since become a mainstay in offices the world over. Today it is one of the top five bestselling office supply products in the world. What a failure!

Without Failure There Can Be No Real Progress 

So if someone asks you if you are in the game to win it or just not to lose it, remember the words Theodore Roosevelt spoke on the topic of  ‘playing to win versus not to lose’:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”