The Success Bubble

By: Eric Betts

Your company, institution, non-profit, or religious organization has achieved incredible success in recent years. On a personal level, you are (metaphorically speaking) at the “head of the class.” In your field of service, it appears that you have struck gold. Your popularity among those you serve is phenomenal. Your brand is easily recognizable, and you are indeed the talk of the town.

How do you explain your success when asked? Some successful leaders would answer the question from the perspective of their own skills and abilities. One may answer the question by focusing on many different variables. The variables that are so often given attention are: education, expertise, hard work, dedication, knowledge, and skills. However, there is one particular variable that goes unnoticed on many occasions. That variable is luck. Sometimes success may depend, to a degree, on being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes luck is more of a contributing factor than is realized. A leader who expects to expand upon prior success, must evaluate how much time and chance has contributed to one’s success. This requires great humility on the part of the leader. It is natural for a leader to be so impressed with themselves, that they would assume that all of their success flows out of their own knowledge and hard work.

Any organization or institution has an unavoidable tendency to decline when insulated within the bubble of success. Jim Collins, a leadership expert, writes about this success bubble. He calls it the “hubris born of success.” This success bubble can be characterized as being unaware and undisciplined. Collins says, “Great enterprises can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline.

[Organizational decline] kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.” Collins ranks successful leadership on a pyramid of five levels, with the highest level being that of level 5. According to Collins, level 5 leaders worry just as much about their success and not understanding all the variables that caused it, as unsuccessful leaders worry about the possibility of total failure.

Many success stories become short-lived and temporary because the leaders of the organization failed to understand their own limits and how much luck was involved. Collins recalls a conversation with a company leader on a particular occasion and draws many valuable lessons. Leadership expert Bill Hybels goes on to suggest that being the best in the class, so to speak, indicates that the downfall has already begun. This decline is born out of the fact that one assumes that their success will continue simply because of hard work and intelligence. At any point that this misunderstanding is embraced, decline has already begun. Hybels warns, “When you are at the top of the world, the most powerful nation on Earth, the most successful company in your industry, the best player in your game, your very power and success might cover up the fact that you’re already on the path of decline.”

Many great nations and empires have succumbed to failure due to this success bubble. The Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and British empires are prime examples of those who became so arrogant that they assumed that their success was limited to their superior culture and military greatness. They failed to recognize how much the times, external factors, and mere luck played in their rise to supremacy. Because they failed to seek where luck factored into the equation, they didn’t evaluate how they should compensate if they are not so lucky in the future.

Certainly, hard work, consistency, dedication, morale, education, and culture have a great deal to do with success. While acknowledging that these characteristics play an extraordinary role in success, failing to acknowledge those occasions where you or your organization were simply “blessed” with good fortune may very well be the cause of a future downfall. Acknowledge the role that hard work and knowledge play in success, but do not underestimate how streaks of luck can factor into the equation. Level 5 leaders, as Jim Collins identifies them, never overestimate skills and abilities. They understand that they need to evaluate their success and recalibrate for the future because they may not be as fortunate in the days to come. They never rest on their laurels, they never become complacent, and they never overestimate how great they are.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University