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Choose to Be Untroubled by Others’ Definition of Success

If it’s all about winning, are you really winning?
Hot air balloons on the ground create a colorful frame for the one that is rising above them.

While visiting my daughter earlier this year, I stumbled upon an interesting image at a local restaurant. It was a drawing of a young man’s face featuring a calm, unperturbed expression—perhaps even a bit bored. The text below the picture said simply,

“Untroubled by your definition of success.”

The statement in the image caught my attention and deeply resonated with me. There are common and socially acceptable metrics for success, but there’s also significant variation from person to person and organization to organization. How do our definitions of success align with—and deviate from—the ways in which others define it?

If it’s all about winning, are you really winning?

Throughout my career, I've encountered many leaders with a “win no matter what” mentality dozens of times, both as a CFO and in my executive coaching practice.

It's not surprising that this mindset is so widespread in the corporate world. Leaders face intense pressure to succeed—from shareholders, competitors, and boards of directors, as well as from their own teams.

Yet I’ve also spent many quiet moments with senior leaders who lamented the harshness of a “take no prisoners” culture. These leaders have often told me that the pressure to maintain this posture puts them at odds with their highest ambitions—things like leading a balanced life, helping others succeed, and treating people with dignity. They frequently feel torn between the imperative to deliver awe-inspiring results and the moral sacrifices they think they have to make to achieve them.

But the idea of achieving professional success while living a life you can be proud of doesn't need to feel paradoxical.

It’s all in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

I think the solution lies in definition of “success” itself.

Leaders spend a significant amount of time working toward the "what" and the "how" of a specific or targeted outcome.

The "what" is our business results – sales growth, profits, innovation, market share, customer satisfaction, etc. The "how" encompasses the steps we take to achieve those results. In other words, the "how" is the way we navigate the world around us (and the people we encounter) as we work toward the "what."

Remember: our mindsets and values inform our behaviors, which in turn produce business results. And ideally, these are the results we're working toward.

You also must remember that you’re not the only person whose behavior impacts results. Those outcomes also depend on the behaviors of countless others within your organization—leadership, peers, team members, and even customers and other stakeholders.

And if we follow this line of thinking, it’s only logical to conclude that the way to maximize results is to optimize interactions with others—with the humans around you. And at the same time, ensure the “how” aligns with your core values. To put it another way, achieving sustainable success that you can be proud of is only possible if you focus on how you do what you do.

Don’t get caught up in the next big win

As leaders, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of the next big win. We chase after sales growth, profits, customer satisfaction scores, and more. But after reaching and even exceeding our goals, we may still find ourselves wanting more—we may still not feel successful.

Yes, hitting our targets and realizing growth is important, but there’s so much more to experiencing sustainable, consistent success—the kind of accomplishment that you can feel proud of even in the seasons where we don’t make all of our targets. When we focus on how we get there—and the values that truly drive our behavior, we become more conscious and peaceful in our work and in ourselves.

I’d like to propose a brief thought exercise for the next time you’re navigating a choice between “success” and honoring your own core values. You can do this on paper, out loud with a trusted advisor, or simply just think through it on your own.

  • Name what success looks like, and briefly identify if/how it does or does not align with your core values.

  • Pause, breathe, reflect on this incongruence.

  • Take another pause, then consider what it would look like to broaden your definition of success.

My hope is that you’ll discover a way forward that allows you to get what you want, without compromising the guiding principles that matter most to you.


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