CEO Coaching: When Luck Runs Out

As I sat in the dental office awaiting my appointment, I pulled out a business magazine from the rack—Fortune, I believe. It was over a year old, but something on the cover caused me to peruse it. Inside was a feature article about a woman who was going to “crush” the cryptocurrency space (I suspect she is SOL at this point), an article about the Volkswagen CEO (who was recently fired), and news of another upward-trending business that’s now defunct.

“Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” is a line often bandied about (apparently incorrectly attributed to Andy Warhol). In business, sometimes that person with the bright shining star will fall to earth before the ink has dried on the wisdom they espouse in their newest book.

The ratio of luck to skill haunts most who climb the ladder of business success. Many humble leaders ask: Am I really that good, or am I mostly lucky? The answer is probably both—good and lucky.

Those who are all fluff and no stuff (think Theranos, Enron, or WeWork) aren’t really on my radar. I’m talking about real leaders. Those who can inspire others to do good things. Those who understand profitable business models. Those who are emotionally intelligent. Many whom you’ve never heard of run profitable small- or mid-market businesses, happily provide employment to many, and pay their dues. (Herbert Deiss, recently fired Volkswagen CEO, was much more like this than Holmes at Theranos, Skilling at Enron, or Neumann at WeWork. His luck ran out after a long career.)

No one bats a thousand over a career. Good, and even great, leaders make mistakes and have bad luck along with good. I know many talented people who’ve been fired. You must take care, however, not to learn from those who have fame by luck or by forked tongue. 

If you’ve had good luck in your career, that’s wonderful! It doesn’t mean you’re a fraud. However, recognize it for what it is and develop skill. Luck isn’t a plan for success.

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