Why Winners Don’t Win

“Just figure out what you’re good at and do more of that - don’t focus on your weaknesses.” Successful people give this advice all the time, but is it good advice? And should you follow it?

The answer is no.

In some cases, it may be useful for someone, like a machine learning engineer, who has a very specialized skill set that’s in high demand and knows they want to do that one thing for the rest of their lives. But for anyone else - those of us who don’t want to get pigeonholed, and do want to become leaders and excel once we get there - we must do both.

Double down on your strengths and improve your weaknesses... to a certain point. More on that in a moment, but first a story.

I used to be a show jumping (equestrian) rider. When I was 17, two weeks before the national junior championships at Madison Square Garden, my trainer, Missy Clark, pulled me aside and gave me a wake up call. She said,

“Lauren, you are a winner, but if you keep riding like that you aren’t going to win.

She went on to describe a key weakness in my riding position - I sat too heavy in the saddle. Until that moment, I had zero awareness of the problem. It was painful to hear - she was blunt - but I’m so grateful she said it.

I agreed to work on it, and with her help, I began to see progress. At first it felt awkward, I was using my leg and core muscles in ways they hadn’t been used. But very quickly I started to feel better, and more in control on a horse's back. Things that used to be hard became easier when I got in the half seat, and it all started to click.

Two weeks later I won the junior national championship at Madison Square Garden. I have a VHS tape of my winning round on ESPN to prove it (yep it’s a tape, I’m that old). I wouldn’t have won that day if Missy hadn’t delivered that game changing wake up call, and I hadn’t committed to improving a weakness.

Now let’s apply this to idea to a business scenario - picture this - you work with a founder/CEO who’s an incredible strategist, the best you’ve ever worked with - but she’s terrible with people. Empathy of a rock, self awareness of a snail.

She’s got an airtight strategy to grow her product, but when it comes to team building (hiring, managing, and inspiring humans), she sucks. She doubts her team at every corner, she micromanages everything and everyone, and she’s got no self awareness around any of it.

The best CEOs do two things well 1) define strategy 2) team build (hire, inspire, manage humans) - she’s nailing half and bombing the rest.

This CEO’s strategic chops may open the door to a big win, but they aren’t enough to bring that big win home. Her company would be limited by her inability to build, inspire, and retain the team necessary to scale her vision. The best talent won’t stick around to be micromanaged and undercut. And the best strategy will fall flat without a strong team to bring it to life.

So, we’ve identified that weaknesses must be addressed.

But how do we know if a weakness is bad enough to prevent a winner from winning?

Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What is the minimum bar I need to meet to prevent my weakness from taking me down?

  2. Am I over that threshold?

If the answer to #2 is yes, you’re good, invest with singular focus in your areas of strength, and lean on people who are strong in your areas of weakness.

If the answer to #2 is no, then you’ve got some work to do and it’s going to require a balance in focus - invest in your area of strength, while you simultaneously bring yourself over the minimum bar.

Improving a weakness is much harder and slower, and way less fun, than doubling down where you’re already good. You don’t need to overcome your weakness (that may be impossible), you just need to meet the minimum bar.

Don’t answer these two questions on your own. Humans are notorious for overestimating themselves and lacking self-awareness. Ask your team, ask your partner, ask your friends and ask your family. Ask people who will be brutally honest with you the way Missy was with me. Those people are a gift.

Now, go forth and win.

 Missy (right) celebrating on her way into the arena at MSG to accept the winning trainer's award

Missy (right) celebrating on her way into the arena at MSG to accept the winning trainer's award