THE BLOG
10/23/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Why You Should Always Play Like the Underdog

This time of year always brings surprises. I'm not speaking of the trees changing color or the crisp weather sneaking up on us in October; I'm talking about great teams getting upset. In both professional and college sports, we see upsets on a regular basis. Defined simply, an upset occurs when a more talented team loses to a less talented team in a competition. Whether it's NCAA football or Major League baseball's postseason, upsets happen routinely. Highly gifted and successful teams will continue to get beaten every year until a vital lesson is learned.

Allow me to explain.

Success can tweak your sense of identity. Endorphins are released, and you feel good about the gains you've made. It provides a high, and we cling to it. It's why some competitive types will try anything -- even cheating -- to be one up on someone else. We like to look in the mirror and see a "winner."

There's a downside, however. Once you're comfortable in this identity, it's difficult to see yourself in any other way. Success provides a false sense of self. Successful people are often guilty of letting their guard down, believing they really are the best at what they do. And it's true -- at least for that moment. But this belief is blinding. It causes a fog to expand through our mind and emotions, making it difficult to see how fleeting success really is. It offers a false sense of self, or at least an identity built on temporal foundations. It can take the edge off of folks who once worked relentlessly to achieve this identity.

A classic case study
Consider the department store Sears. They are back in the spotlight, but for a bad reason. They just reported their ninth straight quarterly loss. Investors are avoiding Sears' stock because the retailer can't seem to stop losing money. They're down 40 percent in the last three years, and unfortunately, it's been this way for even longer. Why don't they do something, you ask?

They're stuck in a past identity. I remember growing up when Sears was the leader. They were a Walmart in their heyday. Their catalogue was an innovative way to come right to your doorstep and make shopping easier. In the beginning, the time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America's westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided mail order business by permitting the classification of publications as aids in the distribution of knowledge. This entitled these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 made distribution of the catalog economical. Richard Sears called it the "Book of Bargains."

Today, however, catalogues in the mail are not a cutting edge idea. I'm sure Sears knows this, but it's difficult to think differently when you've succeeded profoundly in the past. Today, Sears needs a new identity. So how do you build off of past successes without allowing it to affect you negatively?

Playing like an underdog
The teams I know that push past the intoxication of success or winning enter every day like an "underdog." Like they still have something to prove or win. They have adjustments or improvements to make; they see themselves as "David," not "Goliath." They are confident, but their identity doesn't make them comfortable. The following are three concepts that enable teams to do this:

1. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck reminds us that people possess one of two mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one that assumes an identity that's permanent. I am either smart, or I'm not. I'm either beautiful, or I'm not. I'm successful, or I'm not. The problem is, we tend to believe if we are smart, we shouldn't have to try so hard. If we have "won," it is harder to have incentive to work relentlessly. It's our identity. Dr. Dweck suggests we build a growth mindset instead. This perspective assumes we are always growing and improving. The brain is like a muscle. It can grow. If we're not good at math, for instance, we should say, "I am not good at math... yet." Growth mindsets prevent success from blinding our vision, allowing us to seeing the future clearly.

2. Methods vs. Mission
Interestingly, Sears is not the only stock that's down right now. Believe it or not, Twitter is as well. They've gone up and down, but right now, they're losing money on a net basis. Investors are okay with it, however, because of the trajectory they expect from the company. Unlike Sears, they're still in "underdog" mode, fighting their way through the fiercely competitive market space of social media. If you were to compare Sears and Twitter, one major difference might be: Sears appears to have confused "methods" with "mission." It's easy for people to fall in love with the way they do things, and when that happens, they can become immovable. When leaders clarify their mission (which is unchanging), it enables them to be open to changing the methods in order to reach it.

3. Rivers vs. Floods
This is one of my favorite Habitudes® (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes). Rivers and floods are both bodies of water. The difference? Floods are water going in every direction, while rivers are water flowing in one direction. The organizations and teams that play like underdogs stay focused like a river. Knowing there is room for growth, they remain on point with great clarity on what needs to be done to make progress. Underdog teams are able to "upset" a more talented team because of their focus. They're more of a river than their opponent. There's no sideways energy. What they lack in talent is made up for in the way they harness every ounce of talent they do have.

My advice to you? Always play like an underdog.