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The Importance of Winning - (Correctly) By Pepper de Callier

It’s no secret to my friends that I get many of my column ideas from my wife, Priscilla.  She is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and former executive in the movie industry in Hollywood.  Her past exposure to one of the most complicated business models known to man, as well as to the complex egos, personalities and lifestyles of the people who lead, and who are led, in a very Machiavellian world, give her some very cogent insights into a wide range of human behavior.

Recently, over breakfast, we were talking about character flaws and, as is often the case, she began describing a situation that sparked the idea for this column.  She told me about a book she was reading in which an American politician who was known for a fierce drive to win—to win at all costs—as the author put it, was profiled.  The author described how this particular politician was so consumed with winning that he or she (use your own imagination here to provide the correct pronoun) would do some absolutely unthinkable (to those with character and integrity) things in order to win.  As a youth, this person was known for intentionally, personally and unfairly, impeding the performance of others who were competitors in sporting events in order to ensure victory. 

I couldn’t help but think of parallels to this behavior in the world of business. 

Full disclosure notice: I am an unapologetic capitalist and I really enjoy winning in anything I undertake.  However, how one wins makes all the difference in the world.

Over the years I have been fortunate to have known business leaders, from a wide range of industries, who were very successful in their chosen field of pursuit.  These are people who also love to win and who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.  The definition of “whatever it takes”, though, is the real key to this whole concept.  

When someone, like the politician mentioned above, says they will do whatever it takes to win, they mean it quite literally--regardless of the ethical considerations of fair play.  One instance of this type of thinking that comes quickly to mind was the attack on ice skating champion Nancy Kerrigan a few weeks before the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, which was orchestrated by Jeff Gillooly, the husband of her rival, Tonya Harding.  The shame of this event is something its perpetrators will carry with them for the rest of their lives. 

This type of activity, this-win-at-all-costs mentality, is exactly what became the definition of success to many corporate executives and politicians in the last decade of the 20th century, which led to their ignominious downfall. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it wasn’t the end of this kind of thinking. 

Now let me explain how “doing whatever it takes” to win is defined among true champions—in business, sports, politics and everywhere else.  It means doing anything and everything that is ethical.  No true champion wants to win against someone who isn’t competing at their best, too.  That’s what makes the victory worth winning.  That’s where the pride of accomplishment comes from.  Doing whatever it takes may mean working all through the night to redo a proposal or to fine-tune a presentation.  It may mean going out of your way to do something right even if it takes longer and is much harder to do.  In short, it means giving it your personal best. 

After working with leaders for many years, I can tell you that there is an unspoken code of honor among champions of integrity.  They play tough, they hit hard, they make personal sacrifices, but they always play fair.  If there is even a hint that foul play is expected of them they will exit the “playing field” immediately.

One of the reasons for this is that personal value of the victory just isn’t worth the effort or the damage to one’s reputation if it’s not fairly won.  One approach signals immaturity, impatience, and a lack of personal integrity.  The other speaks of quality, honor and character.  When an unscrupulous leader tells you to win at any cost, they really mean at any cost to you.  Because when something goes wrong they will be as far away from you as they can possibly be to protect themselves.  This is how some careers of young executives end up being ruined and reputations are formed which eventually exclude one from any substantial or meaningful opportunity.

So, the next time you enter a competition in business, sports, music, or whatever it is, remember, the most important thing to win is your own self respect.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at