The Most Devastating Leadership Pitfall: Success

I think people have become more than a little confused about the meaning of success and failure in business and in life. It’s concerning, to say the least.

On the one hand, success is good, but if you let it go to your head, it can be too much of a good thing. Likewise, nobody wants to fail, but we all do and there’s a great deal of wisdom and strength to be gained from the experience.

Yes, I know that’s not a news flash. But it does describe a great truth: all behaviors contain their opposites. In business, in leadership, in all things, there’s a certain yin and yang to everything, and balance is the key to walking that fine line.

That simple truth also describes an all-too common business pitfall: that leaders are only brilliant until they’re not. Until they become their own worst enemy. Until, blinded by success, they become complacent and their competitors adapt and go on the offensive.

You see, the sort of iconic vision we tend to assign to great leaders is only there in hindsight. If it’s successful, it was brilliant. If not, it was a dumb idea, flawed, doomed. And the only difference between those two fates is a fragile and permeable membrane that is typically crossed when leaders lose their sense of balance and perspective.

Investors say past performance is no indication of future results. That’s true, but in the business world it’s even truer because, when egos are involved, success often breeds complacency, reliance on the status quo, and an unrealistic self-image. And that’s the only advantage that competitors need.

Malcolm Gladwell has been out and about lately talking up his new book about the hidden advantages of underdogs. The examples I’ve heard are sound, but they won’t do you or anyone else any good and I’ll tell you why. Because once they become known, they’re no longer advantages. And, like it or not, competitive markets are not static.

As a young executive I worked for companies that challenged industry giants like Microsoft and Intel. They had some success for a while, but then their leaders became a bit full of themselves, lost their perspective, and made poor decisions. That gave the giants a little time to adapt and crush us, which they did.

Once crushed, none of those executives ever recovered. They knew they had their one big chance, made their millions, and exited stage left, leaving all their employees, shareholders, and customers to the winds of fate.

Interestingly enough, for executives and leaders whose egos are overblown, whose vision isn’t grounded in reality, success and failure are both toxic. Success clouds their judgment and failure bursts their over-inflated self-image like a pin stuck in a balloon. And make no mistake; those traits are remarkably common in leadership ranks.

But there is a twist that makes this discussion even more interesting.

There are people who become successful because they have an unusual need to prove themselves, an unnatural desire to be bigger than life. On some level, they want to be special, superhuman. And that’s a powerful drive that, in the hands of great talent, can indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The late Steve Jobs certainly fit that description, and that’s probably one of the reasons why he went out at the top of his game. I don’t mean to be morbid or to second guess the free life decisions of a great man – or any man, for that matter – but Jobs said himself that he regretted not getting treatment for his cancer sooner than he did.

Over the decades in the high-tech industry I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of brilliant entrepreneurs, executives, business owners, bankers, and venture capitalists. Their ideas, their motivation, and their behavior made them successful. And for many if not most, they failed for exactly the same reasons.

When success gives you just the right amount of evidence you need to reinforce your need to be special, your belief that the rules don’t apply to you, the notion that you can do no wrong, that’s when you’re in trouble.

When that sort of utopian thinking begins to infect your decision-making, that’s when success inevitably turns to failure. And your competitors will be there to capitalize on your mistakes.

To avoid that fate, remember that any strength is also a weakness. That what got you to where you are can also take you down in a heartbeat. And that, unless you’re reasonably self-aware and balanced, you won’t even know it’s happening until after it’s too late.