When I was in high school I remember coming home after our high school football team lost a critical conference game. I played defensive end and had a rough night holding contain, and slowing down our opponents receivers. When I walked into our house both my mom and dad knew I was upset, disappointed and defeated. In an effort to help me move forward they asked me this question –
“Did you do give your best tonight?”
And of course I answered “yes I did” because I wanted to win as badly as any player on the field.
Then my parents said that’s stuck with me ever since,
“Then if you did your best there’s nothing more you could have done to change the outcome of the game. The only thing you can do now is learn from this and improve for the next game.”
My parents wanted me to know that I couldn’t control what others do, the conditions I perform in, and most other factors that impact my performance, but I can control myself. I can always do my best.
But, as I also learned on that Friday night so many years ago, sometimes doing your best isn’t enough. Effort, though important doesn’t equal winning, doing your best doesn’t guarantee success. It just guarantee’s, no matter the results, I don’t have to hang my head.
I also realized that evening that, by definition, we can never do better than our best. There’s no space above doing all we could in a given situation. What we can do, as my parents told me, is to learn so that our top-level can be redefined, our best ceiling can rise. In most cases, unfortunately, the conditions required to create this kind of transformative learning happens after we lose or perform badly.
So, we can and should always do our best in any given situation. But when our best isn’t enough, we need to take the opportunity to learn so that the next time we perform, our best will meet the challenge.
Winning and being on top is a great place to be personally and organizationally. There’s nothing like setting challenging goals, working hard to achieve them and then enjoying the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you and your team have won.
Yet this place is one of the most dangerous places to be. We’re at our most vulnerable because winning and being on top is a very slippery and deceptive place.
It’s slippery because no organization, team, or person wins all the time, nor sit on top forever (trust me I know this because I’m a Michigan football fan). This means we can never plan on or expect our lofty perch to last forever. There’s always a fall, a stumble or loss along the way.
And this is exactly why being on top is so deceptive. The longer we’re on top the more it feels like it will last forever, that our organization is somehow immune to whatever causes others to lose or fail. We even begin to feel that we’ve earned the right to be in this place regardless of what we do going forward. We may even admit intellectually that this can’t last forever. Yet too often we never allow this intellectual ascent to descend into our heart and our emotional being. The result is we never truly change our behavior or our direction until we find ourselves no longer on top.
So what can we do to protect ourselves and our organizations when we’re winning or sitting on top?
Play and Lead as if we’re behind.
We need to work as if the wolves are nipping at our heals, the barbarians are at the gate, that impending doom is sitting at our door. We can do this by always setting new goals, tougher standards, and expecting more from ourselves and our teams. If necessary, as leaders, we may need to find or create a crisis that reminds everyone that we’re much more vulnerable than we feel.
Or sometimes it’s as simple as giving all the naturally pessimistic people on our team a voice and really listening to that voice. When we’re on top we lose our sense of urgency about change. Our job as leaders is to create that urgency again, in ourselves and in others. And finally we can never allow ourselves and our teams to make decisions from the perspective of being at the top. The only perspective in which we should make decisions is in the light of being behind.
Finally, whatever we do, we cannot allow ourselves and our team to trust that feeling we have when we’re on top. Instead always, always we need to feel, play and lead as if we’re behind.