Gini Dietrich

Competitive Leader: Does It Mean You’re Not a Team Player?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 17, 2010 | 

I’m not a team player. Yes, I will repeat myself. I am not a team player. A cycling buddy of mine convinced me to train on the velodrome track every Friday. So I do. And it is F-U-N! I mean, serious fun. Talk about a rush of adrenaline! You don’t have to worry about lights or tourists stopping to look at the tall buildings or joggers turning around without looking behind them or baby geese crossing the path. All you have to worry about is not getting dizzy from going around in circles so fast.

This past Friday, we did mock racing. Our coach put us in teams and I was on the team that was the rabbit…meaning the other teams had to try to catch us. Super cool and a little nerve wrecking. I’m competitive enough that there is no way anyone was going to catch me…I mean us. The idea is that you work as a team to stay ahead of the other teams, which my partner did very well. But when it was my turn to pace, I was out for blood. I could see a third head coming up in the shadow and I dropped my teammate like a hot potato trying to stay ahead. It was not good and Coach reprimanded me (but the third head didn’t catch me!).

And it made me wonder…if I’m so competitive, am I really not a good team player at work either?

This reminds me of a story involving my brother’s kids. When my niece was three or four, we were playing Apples to Apples and I was teaching her how to win. Not thinking anything more of it (after letting her win a few rounds), I flew home. A few days later my sister-in-law called and said, “I need you to hear something.” In the background, I hear my niece yelling to her sister, “I WIN! YOU LOSE!” My sister-in-law got back on the phone and said, “They are playing Apples to Apples. Where do you think she learned that?” Who? ME??

I told my mom about my velodrome racing and that I learned I’m not a team player. She said, “Does that surprise you?” So now I’m doubly curious. Am I not a good team player at work?

How can one be a good leader and not a good team player? How can one want to win at almost any cost and not be a good team player? Can you be type A, competitive, AND be a great team player?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • My answer is yes, depending on how you define winning. If you define winning as the business being successful, then you can absolutely do both. If you define winning as you succeeding personally whether the business makes it or not, then it becomes more of a challenge. Don’t be too quick to equate your approach in a bike race to how you run a business though – they are two different things.

    Think about it this way.. Does the CEO who walks away with a golden parachute while investors and employees lose money win.. or not? Many people may answer that question differently and that may determine whether they can lead a business successfully or not.

    Competitive fire is a huge asset for a leader and most aren’t successful without some level of it. What matters is where you point it.

    Those are my thoughts and I can’t wait to read others. And thank you Gini for putting yourself out there and making all of us think.


  • I think you can be highly competitive and be an amazing team player all at the same time.

    As Randy mentioned your competitiveness on the race track does not directly equate to the way you run your business. On the track, you wanted to stay in the lead and not let anyone pass you or your team, for you. In business, as a boss, manager, and leader, your competitive edge and desire to win at any cost benefits your team buy providing them with clients, a bar set high, and a boss that will not settle for anything less than perfection. By having these expectations you are in effect fighting for you company and your team, thus making you an amazing team player in my eyes.

    That said, I would be happy to work with you, but want nothing to do with you on two wheels, you would kick my butt 😉

  • Gini, you have an amazing tribe. I have nothing more substantial to add than Randy and Jason have already eloquently offered with their insights. But I do think it’s important to remember we’re never completely defined by one trait of our personality. We are beautifully complicated and complex individuals with the ability to summon the characteristics needed by the moment. I sense you do that perfectly. And I’m in awe of anyone who would get on the track pictured in this post and do what you described. I think I’ll think about it while I have a glass of wine and watch basketball : )!

  • Gini, great post once again. As it relates to your business, I definitely think you can be a great leader and not a team player. You’ve identified an area of an improvement and as a good leader, you’ll build a team that allows that to become a strength. Your last post ties in perfectly with this. As you begin the hiring cycle again, the experiences you had the last year to 18 months better prepared you to make the right hiring decisions. Bringing people on that will compliment your skill set and make the company successful. In doing so, you can maintain your competitive fire and rest comfortably knowing you have a team behind you that will help achieve the company’s goals and objectives.

    That being said, I’m still optimistic the Lions will come to Soldier Field in September and get a win.


  • Some people are great team players by leading. Nice post Gini.

  • Great topic and food for thought, Gini.

    I love what Patrick said . . . my thoughts are somewhat similar.

    I think we all have personal traits and tendencies that rise to the surface when things get serious. For you, it’s that competitiveness and desire to win. For me, it’s the fact that I get bored so easily, and one day I may very well say, “da well, I’m done with this project. What’s next?”

    I was just talking to a friend about this the other day, and I told him that I’m building my business with that in mind, knowing it’s a personal leaning I have. Yet I don’t want to let everyone down once I’m in a position where people depend on me, so my plan is to structure the business and my role in it to mitigate any chance of me going all apathetic and blowing everything up. Does that make sense?

    So to answer your question more directly, I think that yes, you CAN be a good team player even with that intense desire to win at all costs. In the larger scheme of things, you just structure your team to absorb and work with/around any personal leanings (I don’t think you’d consider them deficiencies) that you may have. That way you’ve planned ahead and done the best you could for your team and your business, and you can be free to be you and drive, drive drive.

  • There is nothing wrong with winning. Attitude reflects leadership. Sometimes it boils down to something as simple as that.

  • Interesting insight here. I think we need to be careful about how we assign judgments to words, for example team player is not necessarily good and non-team player is not necessarily bad. The reality is that the world and businesses need both to work.

    I also don’t think it’s a leadership thing either. Leaders can be either. Same with winners.

    What if, instead of saying someone is not a team player, we said they were a pioneer. In my experience, pioneers tend not to be “team players,” and, truthfully, they can’t be. If you’re truly a team “player” you surround yourself with a team. A pioneer needs to be comfortable with nobody around, and still have the confidence (ignorance?) to face the dangers and overcome them. That doesn’t mean pioneers can’t work “with” teams, it just means they have a different MO.

  • Gini, I really loved this article. In business we compete every day. Even with clients we already have, there is always someone trying to steal them away. We compete with other sites getting our clients a higher placement in Google. Every service we provide is in competition with their competitors.

    Everything is competition. If you aren’t a competitive person I feel you aren’t really doing your client a favor.

  • I think there’s a place for “enlightened self-interest” in the workplace, and that’s more important (for someone in a leadership role) than is the desire to be a “team player.” Sometimes people who are team players are not willing to achieve as much as they’re capable of, because that might upset others on the team who aren’t able or willing to do as much. Team players are also a little more prone to interpersonal frustrations in the workplace, because it matters more to them if someone blows off a team building event or doesn’t want to go out to lunch with the rest of the team.

    Mean, selfish people aren’t people I want to work with, but I do want to work with competitive people who always have their eyes on their own goals, as long as they’re also genuinely nice people. I know that you’re in that category, Gini! You don’t have to be a team player to be a good leader; you just have to be invested in the team (company) and its success. If you’re also fair, honest and reliable, you’re probably head and shoulders above team players who are missing one of those traits.

    From what I know about you, when you like someone and want them to succeed, you offer a lot of support and encouragement. I’d call that being a good team player, even if you would want to win at almost any cost if that person was in a direct competition with you. That doesn’t mean you’d hate them forever after the competition was over, it just means you’re not going to hold yourself back to spare a competitor from having to deal with losing.

  • Hi Gini!

    “How can one be a good leader and not a good team player?” – Good leaders have passion and vision and the capacity to inspire others to work together in the same direction. Good Team Players adapt the group vision as their own for the duration of the project and suspend their own personal ‘views’ until the goals have been accomplished for the good of the team. If a Team Player’s personal vision is not in alignment with the Team vision – then the personal vision is parked until a more appropriate time to put energy towards it.

    “How can one want to win at almost any cost and not be a good team player?” Winning at any cost often works at cross-purposes with following a process, plan, or strategic goal of a unified Team working in the same direction at the pace necessary with their collaborative skill sets. Winning at any cost often means the focus is winning-oriented vs team goal success oriented ~ and they’re not always the same thing.

    “Can you be type A, competitive, AND be a great team player?” You can be anything you want to be. Throwing a Type A Competitive nature behind the Team’s goals, even if they’re not necessarily YOUR goals at that moment, can be a wonderful infusion of charged energy. I think that it comes down to Focus, Commitment and Priority — and who you put those attributes behind, yourself or the team.

    When playing with children and teaching them competitive games – being clear about the ‘message’ you want them to walk away with in advance will direct the approach you take in the instruction and subsequent play. Sometimes good sportsmanship is the lesson. Sometimes, it’s learning how to lose with grace. Sometimes, it’s learning how to win with grace. Be clear what you want them to learn and then course correct accordingly.

    That’s what I’m thinking anyway …

  • Wow! I’ve been watching the comments all day and they are REALLY good and really smart. It’s great to get thinking from people who are both leaders and team players. I feel much better now knowing that I can be type A, overly competitive, but that the drive to win at work is all about the business succeeding, not me as an individual. Now, shall we discuss why schools not teaching kids about winning and losing is killing them in the business world?

  • Awesome post! I’m currently drafting a blog post about something very similar, so I’m glad I saw Gini tweet this earlier today!

    My first thought is.. at what point will necessity dictate that the success, comfort, and motivation of your team be in line with your own desire to win? In other words, maybe you don’t have the pressure right now to keep your team engaged, and to be “a team player”.

    But I’m going to assert that at some point, your desire to win will require you to be a team player. Sally made a great point. She said:

    “Winning at any cost often means the focus is winning-oriented vs team goal success oriented ~ and they’re not always the same thing.”

    Fully agree. In business, though — and particularly for the figurehead of the business — these two will be one and the same. There’s a reason companies like Walmart and Kodak say their people are their greatest asset: Because they ARE. It’s not just Political Correctness. In your case, maybe your greatest asset actually ISN’T your people… and so you don’t have that urgency or necessity to “be a team player” and bring your “win” goals in line with your “team” goals.

  • Gini, I think what you’re describing is one if the core reasons people become owners of their own business, rather than senior execs in large organizations.

  • Japman, this is a really smart comment and I’d love to see what you are going to blog on the topic! I guess the only way we’ll really know if *I* am a competitive leader and an effective team player is to ask my team. But they won’t tell me…so you guys ask and let me know!