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Leadership: Blinded by Success?

Blinded by Success

Can leaders be blinded by their own success? You bet…While success is what all leaders strive for, unless you’re prepared to handle it, success can quickly complicate your life. As strange as it may sound, success can often times be the precursor to failure. So my question is this: Is your success serving as a springboard toward significance, or is it merely a temporary state, precariously positioned and ready to implode with the slightest change in circumstance? Success without perspective, purpose, and focus can actually cause more harm than good. In today’s post I’ll discuss how leaders can either leverage success into significance, or if they’re not careful, have it serve as a catalyst for a rapid downward spiral…

While not often discussed, nothing dulls the senses like a taste of success. A chance encounter with success can often lead to a feeling of being indestructible, which in turn can lead to arrogance, and the belief that success itself will breed success in any situation. Once a leader starts to believe their own rhetoric, trouble is not far behind. The reality is that past success, in and of itself, does not necessarily serve as an indicator of future success.

Life is full of seemingly successful people who regularly fall from the ivory tower for no apparent reason. We’ve all witnessed the lottery winner who hit the big one only to have their new found wealth derail their life, as opposed to solve all their problems. We’ve seen the same thing happen to young politicians who dream of changing the world only to find themselves corrupted by their own ego once they arrive on Capital Hill.  How about the professional athletes who sign multi-million dollar contracts out of school? They all too frequently end-up running with the wrong crowd only to find themselves out of the league only a few years later with nothing left to show for their success. And finally, how about the executive or entrepreneur who rises to the top, gets the title and the paycheck to go along with it, only to later run their company into the ground and eventually lose their position and all the perks that went with it.

Are success and significance the same thing? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Sure, for those “who get it” success and significance are one in the same, but for most professionals success begins and ends with the achievement of a certain list of personal goals with little regard to the impact on others. These people confuse success with significance, and regardless of their wealth and professional accomplishments, they won’t accomplish the true greatness which only comes through making significant contributions to something other than one’s self. I don’t care how your resume reads, what your net worth is, or what your W-2 shows…what I care about is your motivation, and what you do with what you have.

The pivotal point in leadership maturity is when you remove yourself from the spotlight and focus on building into others. Sadly, too many leaders believe their legacy is something to be constructed at the end of their careers in an attempt to preserve a testimony to their accomplishments and achievements. This has nothing to do with leadership or legacy – it’s little more than a contrived attempt to rewrite history and preserve the myth their ego has fabricated. A real legacy has nothing to do with you, but how you’ve impacted the lives of others. It’s built day-by-day, decision-by-decision, relationship-by-relationship. A real legacy is lived in the present, and as a result it endures the test of time in magnificent fashion.

One of the questions I ask leaders is “how important is legacy to you?” It’s a question to which the answer often reveals what a person truly believes and values. The best answer I’ve received to date was in an interview with Jim Hotaling:

Personal legacy is something a servant leader should never think about. It is all about the organization. I would like to be remembered as someone who gave back to his country since the age of thirteen. I am an American Airman and I have answered my nations call. It’s that simple, I look for no accolades only the ability for myself to say thank you to my country for giving me and my family all that we have.”

Bottom line…Initial success can be a start to something truly great, or the beginning of the end. This will largely be determined by the victor in the battle between your humility and your hubris. Success as a leader has little to do with you, and everything to do with the success of those whom you lead. If the people you lead aren’t better as a result of your leadership, then all the material wealth in the world won’t allow you to sleep any better at night.

What say you?

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    January 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm


    Posts like this one are the reason I’ve become a regular follower of your blog. I especially appreciated your pointing out how legacy depends on the outcome of the ‘battle between humility and hubris.’ It reminded me of Shelley’s poem entitled ‘Ozymandias’.



    Mike Myatt

    January 17, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Thanks for the kind words Ron. I hope all is well and that 2012 is off to a great start for you. 



    Scott Mackes

    January 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Mike, nice article.  I came across this quote recently that I think fits this article perfectly – 
    “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers” -Ralph Nader

    Have a great weekend..


      Mike Myatt

      January 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks Scott – a solid reminder for us all.


    Tanveer Naseer

    January 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Mike,

    One step towards making this shift in our focus is recognizing that success is merely an outcome, and not the end goal, behind our collective efforts.  When we make that realization, it becomes easier to shift the focus towards helping those you lead because your motivation is no longer driven solely by a need for personal success.


      Mike Myatt

      January 24, 2012 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks for sharing this insight Tanveer – something we all need to keep in mind. 

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