What’s Your Definition of Success?


Last night, as I was telling the kids goodnight, I noticed that the movie Tin Cup was on television. I’m not a huge movie buff but that’s one of the classics in my opinion. I happen to walk through the room just at the beginning of the scene where Roy McAvoy, with a chance to win the U.S. Open golf tournament, decides to risk it all to make the shot of a lifetime rather than playing it safe to preserve the win. No one could understand why McAvoy was throwing away the win, but he simply had a different definition of success.

What success means to us determines how we live, how we work and how we interact with others. In McAvoy’s case, he valued the immortality of doing something that had never been accomplished more than he valued winning the tournament, a feat duplicated every year. As leaders, do you think we operate differently if our definition of success is building a global enterprise rather than simply making a comfortable living? While both are admirable, they create two very different paths.

It’s easy to adopt the definition that others around us have if we haven’t already established one for ourselves. Many leaders experience a time when success means the bigger staff or the larger office, the one with the corner windows and the solid wood furniture. Candidly, I’ve been there too. Over time though, I think many of the best leaders I’ve worked with go through a shift where what becomes more important are the things that last. Developing others, building a sustainable enterprise and creating opportunity and capability for the people who work with them seem to become the new success. Ironically, it often happens soon after they get the corner office and think… now what?

For some, the shift never happens. That’s when we get the Enrons of the world, or any organization that goes completely off the cliff. Examine any tragedy closely and you will usually find at the center of it, a leader who failed to shift their definition of success even after it became clear that the path they were on would not achieve the results they wanted to be known for.

Make no mistake, our vision of success will be the thing that drives us. We have to be certain as leaders that we’ve thought long enough about it to be certain it’s the one that will take us where we truly want to go.

Tin Cup is a work of fiction but the parallels still exist. Roy McAvoy knew that accomplishing something that would stand for all time was his vision of success, not merely becoming a name on a long list of tournament winners. Because of that, he knew when it was time to depart from the conventional wisdom of what success meant, and stick to his own.

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