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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

How to Keep Your Competitive Drive From Making You Lose

White House photo

Longer time readers of this blog may have noticed that I don’t use political stories as hooks as much as I used to. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, is that I’m usually discouraged by the level of polarization and discourse. The other is that I really don’t want to contribute to it.

With that said, one of my rules for this blog is that if I find myself thinking about something for a couple of days, I should probably write about it because there’s usually a leadership lesson there. Which brings me to Jodi Kantor’s recent article in the New York Times about how big a competitive streak President Obama has. It’s a well reported article with plenty of examples of how driven the President is to win at everything from elections to games of pool. Like most people at high levels in his profession (or any other profession for that matter), the guy is a competitor.

I’m not arguing against leaders having and showing competitive drive. It can be a huge motivator for yourself and your team. Like any other strength, though, it’s helpful to think of competitive drive like a dial on an amplifier. You can dial it down or dial it up depending on the situation and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you dial it all the way to the right and leave it at 11 (as the guys in Spinal Tap used to do), it can become way too much of a good thing. In short, it can set you up to lose.

Setting competitive drive at 11 and leaving it there can be a particular problem for highly intelligent leaders in visible positions of power. (This applies to positions far less visible than President of the United States by the way.) If you have to win at everything, important or not, people start getting annoyed or afraid. They might not tell you directly but, if you’re looking for it, you can see it in a lack of pushback, new ideas and engagement. If you’re good at winning at one or two things in particular, you can start believing that you’re going to win at everything. That can lead you to underestimate the competition. That’s a problem that can be compounded by being surrounded with people who have been conditioned by experience not to fully tell you what they think. You set yourself up to miss stuff that should have been obvious. The competitive drive that helped you to win in the first place can, if overused, make you lose.

What can you do to dial it back in a way that’s enough but not too much? I offered some ideas about that back in 2009 in a post called How to Handle It When You’re the Smartest Kid in Class that I wrote after President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Because the “smartest kids” are often the most competitive kids as well, I think there are some ideas in that post that can help leaders dial back the urge to win at everything. Some of those (the details are in the Smartest Kid post) include :

  • Put people at ease
  • Ask them what they think
  • Listen to their answers
  • Frame your solutions as questions
  • Share the credit

To that list, I would add, pick your battles. Would you rather be effective over the long run or win every little thing in the short run? If your answer is long term effectiveness, dial your amp down from 11 every now and then.

What about you? How have you seen too much competitive drive damage the effectiveness of a leader? What are your best ideas for keeping competitive drive dialed in at the right level?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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