The Role of Luck in a Leader's Success, Part 1
In 2015, the Harvard Business Review ranked Lars Sorensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk, as the best-performing CEO in the world for that year. When most CEOs are asked what makes them and their companies successful, they usually point to a brilliant strategy with hard-nosed, diligent execution and great leadership. Not Mr. Sorensen. When asked what made him successful, he had a one word answer: LUCK. Subsequent to that answer, the Harvard Business Review published a series of papers exploring the roles of luck, ability and experience in building CEO successes. This led to two conclusions: first, no single trait or skill seems to explain CEO performance and, second, luck plays a very large role, often a larger role than many will admit to.
The Role of Luck in Leadership Success
There's no point in disagreeing that there's a role for luck in any leader's successes. Luck matters. In 2014, Dirk Jenter at Stanford and Fadi Kanaan at MIT published a study that looked at more than 3,000 CEO moves between 1993 and 2009. They found that CEOs were frequently fired for factors that appeared seemingly outside their control. CEOs were significantly more likely to be dismissed during recessions or when their overall industry was suffering, despite the fact that these were macro trends and had little to do with a lack of managerial skill. In essence, CEOs who lead during robust periods of economic and rapid industry growth were more likely to succeed. There's some truth to this, but we believe this may be an oversimplification as it relates to the role of luck in leadership success and/or failure.
If luck is important, then creating one’s luck is even more important. In their recently published work “How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love and Life,” Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh argue that luck is a combination of random chance, talent and hard work; while we cannot control some of that equation, we can create some of it. “People who have a talent for making luck for themselves grab the unexpected opportunities that come along.” The two go onto argue that there are actually some simple rules to creating one’s own luck:
- Pay attention. “The most important talent anyone who seems lucky possesses is the ability to pay attention on many levels and to notice opportunities.”
- Get off the standard path. Lucky people are often the outliers who find a path that others have missed.
Kaplan and Marsh go on to cite the example of Warner Bros. executive Mike Darnell, who made his name in the 1990s by championing offbeat specials at Fox that ultimately launched reality TV. Most of the industry at the time turned away from this type of content; however, when Simon Fuller came to Hollywood to pitch a reality show, Darnell was one of the few executives who agreed to meet him. Ultimately he bought “American Idol,” one of the most successful programs in television history.
Think of Yourself as Lucky
Optimism is key. Researchers show that believing one has control over what happens fuels trying, innovating, thinking outside of the box. Taking advantage of those difficult moments that seem like bad luck can lead to success and happier times. Difficult situations, if considered in the right context, can often shake complacency and inspire people to take risks that can lead to unexpected good luck.
Frederick Lamster is a partner at Battalia Winston International, and an ex-CHRO at L Brands. Sharon Tunstall is a consultant at Connect the Dots, and a former CHRO at Nike.
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Frederick Lamster is the Managing Director at ZRG Partners, a progressive mid-sized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach.
Sharon Tunstall is a Consultant at Connect the Dots, a leadership solutions consulting company.