Addicted to Winning (Habit Series #1, pt 2)

As a follow-up to Part 1 in the Habit Series from Marshall Goldsmith’s “Twenty Habits that Hold You Back from the Top,” let’s take a look at why military leaders are routinely addicted to winning, which turns out to be both helpful and potentially destructive.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron takes off for a sortie at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 15, 2014, during Red Flag-Alaska 15-1. (Link to DoD photo by Senior Airman Peter Reft, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Recall that Goldsmith’s first Habit to avoid is “Winning Too Much.” He emphasizes that leaders should pursue wins in the areas that really matter, while recognizing that trying to “win” every engagement could undermine the team’s development and destroy credibility. Goldsmith warns against becoming the proverbial father who slams dunk after dunk on his 9-year-old, crushing his hopes and never letting him develop his own skills.

For military leaders, losing in combat is not an option. This core mindset bleeds over into daily life (even outside of combat) to create a competitive environment that espouses aggressive, Type-A leadership. But there’s another reason the military is addicted to winning.

In the “Top 10%”…Isn’t

We military leaders consistently have an inflated view of our own performance. It’s not necessarily our fault; it happens because the military is traditionally bad at giving honest feedback on evaluation reports. We see phrases like “top 10%” and “magnificent performance” and we think that’s exactly what our bosses are saying.

What we don’t typically hear is: “You’ve got a lot to offer the Army, but I don’t think you should be a battalion commander.” Or, “You’re not meeting the standards expected of a squad leader. You need to up your game or I’m pulling you out of position and recommending you move to another specialty.” Supervisors instead spare the subordinate’s egos by writing veiled evaluation comments and pass the buck to the next rating period or next rater.

The result is that the officers and NCOs continue to serve in position and in higher ranks, having never been enlightened to serious flaws in their leadership ability.

Here’s the problem, one that Goldsmith explains in detail in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Winning instils confidence and validates behavior. Military leaders move on to new jobs and new units thinking they should continue the behavior that made them “successful,” an attitude which, in reality, further blinds them to their weaknesses.

“If you ask successful professionals to rate themselves against their peers (as [Goldsmith] has done with more than 50,000 people), 80 to 85 percent of them will rate themselves in the top 20 percent of their peer group – and 70 percent will rate themselves in the top 10 percent.” (What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, 19)

The Success Delusion

Goldsmith calls it “The Success Delusion.” He says, “we think our past success is predictive of great things in our future.” This perspective can provide confidence, but also causes people to overinflate their standing among peers, exaggerate their contribution to projects, and dismiss facts that don’t support their performance. They think, “I’m in this position of authority, so clearly everything I’ve done so far has been right.” And the higher they go, the more “right” they are.

Does that sound like any military leaders you know?

These perspectives become “a serious liability when we need to change. We sit there with the same godlike feelings, and when someone tries to make us change our ways we regard them with unadulterated bafflement.”


Military leaders are bred to win in combat. There’s no use training for any other endstate. Combat, however, is but a fraction of the time spent leading in one’s career. Don’t let the “win at all costs” attitude needed in combat permeate your daily leadership style, or believe that your position insulates you from the need to change. You, and your team’s, effectiveness will be better for it.

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

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