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Not Losing Isn't the Same as Winning

If we want innovation and inspiration from our team, we need to open a path for their ideas and actions.

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The alarm clock goes off, the professional athlete jumps out of bed, looks at the face in the bathroom mirror and begins the day with this affirmation: “Today I will try not to lose.”   

Caiaimage | Tom Merton | Getty Images

Huh? Who does that? Certainly not athletes with championship rings on their fingers, and definitely not anyone at the top of their field. That’s not arrogance or bluster. It’s a mindset that motivates to push harder and go farther than the day before -- to take smart risks and to motivate others to join that journey.

In business, I often see people begin their day with that “try not to lose” look on their face. They come to meetings ready to take notes, but not to raise ideas. They’ll explain what they did last week, but no new plans for next month -- or a vision for next year. They’re anxious about taking on a new assignment that might expose them to risk. 

Related: Are You A Visionary, an Executor or a Processor? Why Your Company Needs All 3 to Succeed.

You’ve heard the expression, “only the mediocre are always at their best.” I’m proud to say I don’t work in a place where mediocrity is the norm -- but it can creep into any . And maybe, as leaders, that’s our fault.

We want visionaries but reward list makers.

Every creates a vision of the possible, or what we call “what beautiful looks like.” But it’s the great leaders who match that vision with an environment that gives their employees permission to explore that vision -- and to translate it into actions they can put into play. The danger is that we crush that initiative by sending mixed signals to our employees.

Have you ever been to one of those inspiring all-employee visioning retreats, only to return on Monday to a boss asking for a monthly progress report? As leaders, we may talk about innovation, but as managers, do we act more like check-list checkers? Does your superstar employee bring a great idea to a meeting only to be met with a “great, maybe next year” answer? Can we afford to only reward people who deliver on their task lists, while our visionaries are asked to “wait ‘til next quarter” instead? 

If we want innovation and inspiration from our team, we need to open a path for their ideas and actions.

Related: Innovation? It Needs to Be Woven Into Every Aspect of Your Company's Culture

Embrace dissent.

As leaders, when we articulate a well-honed, well-research and reasoned vision for our company, we naturally expect our team to “get it,” and to move in unison toward that goal. We’re not eager to hear “yeah, but have you considered…?” comments after all our hard work.

But, do you want to get your team energized? Do you want them to wake up every day bringing new ideas and passion to their work? Then try listening to ideas that might take your plan in a new or expanding direction. And trumpet these new ideas at your next planning session. Then watch your team at the next meeting bring up new ideas, ways to accelerate your plan, or expand it in directions you never considered.  

Reward failure.

Nobody aspires to “not lose.” Facetiously, I’ll tell you it takes a lot of time and practice to acquire a solid play-it-safe attitude. But, more to the , that lesson is typically taught by people who should know better -- the very managers we need to be leaders.

Related: The 3 Steps to Empower Your Employees to Produce Better Work

Why do so many sales teams always just manage to just hit their quarterly sales quota, but no more? They know that if they exceed their mark by too much, some manager will just raise the quota. Or we see the manager who tamps down great ideas with a lengthy SWOT analysis or a “let’s table that ‘til we see our year-end numbers” response. And the cursed, “that’s not in our wheel house” attitude that tells employees to stay in their track. That thinking only creates ruts.

Real leaders not only embrace their team’s ideas -- they reward their failure as well. There’s a story about ’s in the ’70s accepting a mid-level manager’s idea and investing tens of millions in that project, only to see it fail. At the next global meeting, he announced both the close of that business -- and the fast-track promotion of that executive.  

Leaders build a culture where ideas are shared, risks are taken and even failure is rewarded.

Music educator, Eloise Ristad, in her wonderful book “A Soprano on Her Head,” reminds us that when people are given the permission to fail, we also give them “permission to excel.” That’s the job of a good leader -- to free people to reflect on winning versus “not losing.”

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