The dark side of being a winner

The Dark Side of Being a Winner and Why Leaders Need to be Aware of it

February 18th, 2024 Posted by Leadership Coaching, Leadership Tools, Performance Coaching

Now that the election has come and gone my mind can’t help but jump back to the local Tauranga election in which Sam Uffindell was successful. He won and according to him in an earlier interview he has always been a winner; in fact, his dad instilled it in him. This comment raised a red flag for me becauseit seems to be a philosophy of life for Uffindell and considering his upbringing in private schools and his past behaviour he almost seems to be a poster child for what Ian Robertson terms The Winner Effect. It isn’t just Uffindell who has fallen foul to the dark side of winning. Simon Henry, through his disgraceful and arrogant comments about Nadia Lim last year, is also an example of someone who may have fallen foul to its seduction.

So what is The Winner Effect and how can we recognise it? 

When a person is prone to winning it becomes, like a drug, addictive. There is a certain ‘high’ that people get from winning that is produced by a heady cocktail of testosterone and dopamine, and, over time, due to chemical changes in the brain, leads to behaviours that can inevitably be the downfall of the winner. Dopamine, as you’re aware, fuels the brain’s reward system but when this system is hijacked through the use of cocaine, heroin, or other more behavioural rewards, such as the thrill of gambling or sex, then even higher levels of dopamine are needed to achieve the same ‘high’.

However, there is another natural reward that some people crave, and that is the reward of power. Power causes a surge of testosterone which in turn triggers the release of dopamine and anything that repeatedly and strongly triggers a surge in dopamine in the brain’s reward system runs the risk of unleashing the unquenchable cravings of an addict. This may be partly the reason why so many politicians and world leaders don’t want to step down or relinquish their hold over people; think of the likes of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Mugabe and, more recently, Putin.

Now most CEOs and politicians aren’t drug addicts or gamblers but the effect of dopamine on the brain motivates you and sharpens your goal-achieving eye; hence increasing your risk taking behaviour. This heady cocktail of hormones also causes blinkers to our better judgement; we become tunnel-visioned and fail to heed the advice of others because, after all, we get a sense that we cannot fail – we’re winners. Unfortunately, other behaviours tend to emerge from these chemical changes over time, one of which is a reduction in empathy. We start to see others as objects, not as people but as pawns that we can manipulate for our own gain. We recognise that there are rules that we must abide by but we also believe that the rules that apply to the great unwashed don’t apply to us; entitlement is often the term used to describe this. We justify our treatment of others in ways such as, if I’m behaving this way to you, you must be a really bad person and you deserve it. As an example of the blindness that power-addled brains can portray we only need to go back to the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis. At the outset of the GFC the CEOs of some of America’s biggest banks and car manufacturers all flew by private jet when they were called to a meeting in Washington, and they couldn’t see why this was a problem. The brains of these immensely powerful men had been shaped by power so that it was difficult for them to see their actions as others saw them.

So why is it then that not all CEOs and those with great power bestowed on them turn into tyrants? The answer lies in a different type of power. When people go off the rails they tend to have a high need for personal gain; this type of power is categorised as p-power. However, those whose goals are more socially focused, whether for a group, an institution or for society in general, have what’s referred to as s-power. We all have the capacity for both types of power and it largely comes down to which type is more dominant. Those with s-power-dominance tend to have some moral standing and a concern for others. It’s important to note that in order to achieve great things we need p-power (goal achievement and all the hard work and singular focus that it brings) but in order to ensure it doesn’t take over we need to exercise our s-power. It’s the s-power that causes ‘activity inhibition’ which allows us a degree of self-judgement, self-control and good sense. In short, it gives us the ability to critically examine our own character. S-power not only tames p-power, it also dissolves the physiological linkage to testosterone and the competitive aggression that goes with it.

Therefore, the antidote to ego-driven p-power is self-reflection, practicing humility, and giving the power to others allowing them to make decisions that are right for them, and supporting others in the quest for a greater good.


If you’d like to know more about how to achieve more as an individual or as a team, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.

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