You are never closer to your greatest failure than when you are at the moment of your greatest success. –Craig Winn
This quote, from a Businessweek article in 2000, is perhaps one of the best pieces of business wisdom ever imparted to me. Success is as addictive as an opiate and potentially just as dangerous.
Like many of you I have been following the saga at J. P. Morgan Chase over the past week. Here is both a financial institution and a CEO that were revered for being at the top of their game. J.P. Morgan successfully navigated through the financial crisis relatively unscathed. Their CEO, James (Jamie) Dimon, is highly respected as perhaps the best financial CEO in the country, yet at the peak of their success, they stumbled. What happened?
In an article in the May 18 Wall Street Journal Dimon is quoted as saying about his role in the incident, “The big lesson I learned: Don’t get complacent despite a successful track record.” All too frequently success is accompanied by complacency. We get over-confident or, as in the case of Mr. Dimon, get complacent. I know this all too well.
Several years ago I took over an ailing organization and managed, with the help of some talented and devoted colleagues, to turn it around quicker than most folks expected. The results were followed by accolades, a massive promotion, and a very rich retention package consisting of options, restricted stock and deferred compensation. I was on top of my game. Less than two years later, because of my overconfidence and the resulting lack of focus, I confronted a major disaster that almost cost me my job. It was a painful lesson that I will never forget.
H. Ross Perot once said, “Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility, and commitment.” Amen! Great leaders stay great because they stay focused on what is important and don’t fall into the traps that ensnare many. Success can breed arrogance, over-confidence and the false belief that we are invincible. We’re not.
I believe that, if we let it, success will seduce many of us in three areas of weakness. I call these the three deadly P’s.
Pace- Success is usually associated with activity. Everyone wants time with you. You are constantly invited to meetings, dinners, and speaking engagements. Perhaps you are invited to serve on boards or advisory committees. You are busy, real busy. We associate busyness with importance. I wrote about this earlier in a post titled The Busyness Epidemic. This kind of activity not only gives many of us an inflated opinion of our importance, it is literally addicting. The constant activity and the adrenalin rush that goes with it produces a sort of high that makes it almost impossible to shut down. We neglect family and friends. We may neglect our health and we may become so concerned with the activity that we loose sight of our purpose. The urgent drives out the important. Social events, outside board meetings and charity fundraisers consume time that should be devoted to the hard work of leading an organization. We take our eyes off of the ball and problems blow up in our face.
Power- One of the first lessons I learned upon accepting my first role in executive leadership was to be very careful what you ask people to do. They will do it! Simply thinking out loud in a meeting could result in the formation of a project team and the appropriation of resources. Realizing that you have power over others can bring out the best in you, or it can bring out the worst. Abraham Lincoln observed, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” How you handle power is the supreme test of character. For many people power becomes the prime motivator in their work. We certainly see this with dictators and politicians but we also see this with many successful executives. I know a CEO who lost his job because of some ethical transgressions several years ago. He had plenty of money so he didn’t need to work for financial reasons but he confided that the loss of his position and its power was almost more than he could bear. Power can define our self-worth if we let it. It can also be abused. The recent dismissal of Best Buy’s CEO for having an affair with a much younger subordinate is a case in point.
Perks- Perquisites, commonly known as “Perks,” are defined as “A thing regarded as a special right or privilege enjoyed as a result of one’s position.” These include such things as company cars, first class travel, use of corporate aircraft and special club memberships, to name just a few. The big danger is when we begin to believe that we are actually entitled to these things, that they are really ours and that we can use them as we please. Abuses of expense accounts, corporate aircraft and assorted other benefits are all too common. Many of us remember the incident following Jack Welch’s retirement from GE when it was learned that, despite the fact that he was retired and worth many millions, he continued to receive generous perks from GE that ranged from daily fresh flowers and use of company jets to tickets to sporting events. When all of this came to light in his divorce proceedings he has forced to re-negotiate his retirement package.
Each of the three P’s has the potential to distract a leader from their primary responsibilities. With authority comes responsibility. Our job, regardless of what it is, is on loan to us from our employer. We are stewards, not owners. Something none of us should ever forget.