Winning: A New Definition

07/07/2010 11:41 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In America we celebrate Independence Day on July Fourth to acknowledge the courage of a patriot nation to fight for personal freedoms and the right to form a new nation, free of the tyranny of another nation. Beyond the flags and the parades, flush in our collective pride, we pause to celebrate that history's long view confirms that tyrants and murderers, who seem to prevail, most often fail over time to be replaced by the way of truth and even love.

Amazing. Think about it.

I just returned from a week in South America where World Cup mania dominated the daily discourse. In Buenos Aires and Rio televisions seems to pop everywhere to feed a passionate audience of soccer fans, part of the frenzy of 90 million impassioned supporters who continued to follow the finals. It was all about winning.

In America a young president was forced to fire General Stanley McChrystal whose epic faux pas seemed to make a prolonged war feel more uncertain. As opposition to the Afghanistan war grows, our very confidence that we can "win" dims, threatening our confidence in military might and a history of prosecuting wars that win territories and hearts and minds. We are going to soon be forced to ask, yet again, what winning means.

The very name and vision of our firm was chosen to challenge leaders and their organizations to achieve their individual and collective Apogee, a new level of peak performance, to win for their shareholders, their customers, their associates, and themselves. I have had the privilege of knowing presidents and CEO's, storied leaders and even the first man on the moon. All shared a belief that winning is about doing the right thing, and becoming what you must become to achieve it.

They led and lived with grace and grit. And when the rules were clear, and the horizon clear, they usually broke through to achieve and often exceeded a hard-won goal in record time.

Our collective global society celebrates winners and winning. reports more than 18,000 books about winning, and our literature about success is replete with inspirational tributes to athletes, coaches, warriors, and those that overcame huge obstacles to win. Our literature about winning and success is the very foundation of our belief that we can always overcome and get it done.

As I get older (a phrase I avoid), I see more and more examples, many of them poignant, of good men and women who didn't win the prize, and feel Less Than rather than More Than. In a recession economy with more than 10 percent unemployment, retirements have disappeared, jobs erased, and savings spent. The long promised runway to a confident retirement is full of potholes. Our "wins" have disappeared, or, at best, must be re-framed for ourselves and our children.

All of this tends to erode our beliefs, and leave us adrift and angry. We were promised a more certain 'next,' and now we all seem caught up in a spiral of depressing deficits, profound shifts in markets and crushing national debt.

The Gulf oil spill is doing more than polluting precious marshes and beaches across five states; it's informing our sense that the technology and leaders required to fuel our engines and our economy are not to be trusted.

Perhaps it's time to re-frame our definition of winning to include an understanding that our strength doesn't always come from winning. Instead, it comes from confronting the uncertainties, the storm clouds, and pushing through. Look at how New Orleans used Katrina to create a new, different city. Celebrate how the plucky U.S. soccer team performed at the World Cup, not winning, but making millions proud of their performance right up to finals. Their struggle, full of grace and grit, developed new strengths, and in deciding not to surrender, a new kind of winning.

Popular writer Zig Ziglar notes that "Winning is not everything, but the effort to win is."

I hope you don't read these musings as a apology for not trying, or a white flag when you are challenged to give something your best. Many of us are hardwired to win. We don't like feeling less than and don't believe in second best.

But often we don't get the prize. Maturing in life means knowing loss, and sometimes pulling back.

In talking about the loss of an esteemed friend, poet Toni Morrison noted that words ought to be stronger, tougher things. Strong enough to remain upright as they describe the sudden intolerable absence of a friend. They should be more like bamboo: flexible, bending but impervious to the meanest wind, deft survivors--they do not snap.

In this new next, perhaps we can each discover a new wisdom in being more flexible, more thoughtful, and more creative as we face the onslaught of competition, the winds of uncertainty and change, all the while doing and being our best.

Winning may also mean living with gusto, with that fabled grace and grit, coupled with no small measure of personal courage to deal with uncertainty and change. We still need to be fully present in our own lives. We must relish every moment and celebrate the gifts that are ours beyond accumulation, collections, more of more.

Winning at life may stir us to find pleasure in doing our best always, but accepting that is a special kind of victory, too.