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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You can access Marshall Goldsmith’s resources and content at the following links:


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