Leadership Perspectives

Do you want to be right or do you want to win?

trophyRecently, I had a most singularly rewarding experience when a client told me that something I had asked her weeks before profoundly changed her relationship with the world.

When she repeated my question, I had to smile.  Many years ago, a man that I coached – a man that worked for me in my corporate life at the time – had a very similar experience with the same question.

The question was simply, “Do you want to be right or do you want to win?”

Being Right

There are so many times when we are convinced, as leaders, that we have righteousness on our side.  Whether we feel justified by our beliefs or are motivated by some “moral imperative,” we say or do things that don’t necessarily serve our best interests or bring us any closer to our goals because we are wrapped in the cloak of conviction that we are right.

Take the gentleman who emailed me in a panic one morning.  Incensed by the certainty that he was once again being shown disrespect by his organization, as evidenced by the paltry 5% annual pay increase he had received (rather than the 10% that he felt he deserved), he had fired off an angry letter to his CEO demanding his just due.

He contacted me just after he received a terse reply back ordering him to be in the CEO’s office at 9 am sharp.  He was starting to sound doubtful but asked me, “Don’t you think I am right”?  Although a 5% increase sounded pretty good to me, I told him that I had no idea if he was “right” but I was pretty sure that the tactic he used was certainly going to prevent him from winning.

Unfortunately, I was right.  In his meeting with the CEO it was suggested that he would be happier working elsewhere.  The man claimed that 10% increases were the standard for truly valued employees in that organization.  I still don’t know if he was “right” but I know he did not win.


In certain circles, the idea of “winning” sounds harsh or militaristic.  If one “wins,” surely someone has to lose.  For this reason, for a time, I stopped talking about “being right versus winning.”

But based on my recent success with the phrase, I am going back to it.  Winning does not automatically create a loser.  More often, when one truly wins, everyone wins.

Consider Jayne, whose team repeatedly left her to fend for herself when she was the only one who questioned the tactics of a single team member, Bonnie, whose way of doing things consistently let the team down.  Jayne kept saying, “But I am right!  Why does the rest of the team just sit there and say nothing?   It always ends up being me against her while everyone sits and watches.”

Finally, Jayne decided that she was right but she wasn’t winning.

She decided to try a new course.   Instead of confronting Bonnie, Jayne started asking questions – real, open, curiosity questions – that drew out both Bonnie and the rest of the team to have real discussions and to create real learning on everyone’s part.  Then she watched the team dynamic change.

The team didn’t enjoy conflict and as long as Jayne continued to spar with her slacker teammate, she created a “me against her” dynamic that no one else wanted to get involved in.  But when she got curious and started asking learning questions everyone got involved.

To her surprise and delight, after real discussion, the team typically came to the conclusion she would have recommended in the first place.  She had suspected all along that they agreed with her but in her quest to be “right” she had lost sight on “winning.”

Being right versus winning

You can be right, but that isn’t your goal.  Get clear on your goal and then work to win.


    • I’d not heard yours before, Cheryl. But, of course, it makes the same point. We can get way too twisted up trying to be “right” that we lose sight of all of the great alternatives.

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