Play to win or play not to lose?

I like films. So I’m going to use a film plot to give you food for thoughts.

The film is Dangerous minds in which an always wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer plays an ex-marine – LouAnne – who begins to teach literature class in a high school with very problematic students.

And action!

On her first day at the school, LouAnne behaves as expected of a teacher: serious, restrained, attached to the curriculum and accepting, without any question, the principal’s rules. And she faces her class from a supposed position of superiority. Her students don’t recognize her authority in the classroom or her ability to teach them anything.

Let’s stop here.

What’s going on? She is doing everything a good teacher is expected to do: she has prepared the class, she has followed the rules, she has enough knowledge to teach the subject. She is hidden behind that “you have to listen to me because I am the teacher and you are the students”, “I know and you do not”, “I am here to help you”. And what is its impact? None. She does not achieve her goals. She cannot deal with the class. Nothing.

Where is she playing from? She is in the safe, in the fear of doing it wrong, in the fear of not complying with the rules, in not looking like she does not know or that she is not serious enough or in the fear of losing her job. After all, they have given her the opportunity to show that she is ready to teach. And all this fear only leads her to play so as not to lose. And it turns out that she loses.

After this terrible experience, she decides to do different things.

After this terrible experience, she decides to do different things. The next day she appears at the institute dressed in jeans and a leather jacket and enters class and, instead of teaching literature, the first thing she does is admit that they live in a dangerous place and teaches them karate. And instead of abiding by the rules of the principal, she proposes to create some acceptable rules for the class. She creates a new plan. She does things that are “not” done in a classroom. Leave room for them to talk, without imposing anything.

Where is she now playing from? She plays from the vision (“they can learn and I will teach them”) or from the purpose perhaps (“I will find the means for them to learn”). And, she takes risks: maybe she loses everything. She engages them, persuades them, encourages them. She has forgotten her fear and plays to win and wins!


Now let’s think about our day to day. How many times we have let fear dictate what we do. And how that fear makes us play in order not to lose. We focus on maintaining the status quo and circumstances dominate us: “I do this because I have no choice”, “if I take a risk and it doesn’t work out …”, “it has always been done like this”, “we are not going to change it because if it doesn’t work, it’s my fault “….

Fear makes us play so as not to lose. To maintain the status quo.

And, surely, we can also find times when we have played to win. Where purpose and vision have moved us. Where we knew where we wanted to go, and we have taken risks, we have broken rules … even if we could lose. And we won.

If we talk about leadership, this is a key question. In a world where there is increasing uncertainty and complexity, where nothing is what it used to be, where people are an increasingly important factor, lasting impact is only achieved through vision, purpose and collaboration. The old ways are less and less successful even though they have worked so far. Therefore, the leader, to be an effective leader, must play to win.

To be an effective leader I need to play to win.

So in the face of challenges, what do I want to do? And who do I need to be to achieve it? Our leadership development begins with an increased awareness of how we behave and where we do things from.

What moves me? The fear of not losing or the desire to win?

Watch yourself.

Good weekend.