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The Success Paradox – why success can plant the seeds of future failure

Despite popular wisdom, success does not breed success, far from it. Nothing can breed failure faster than success at times. One of the reasons for this is that the success of any venture usually presents leaders with choices and opportunities to do yet more. These choices can be very attractive and they are presented as the ‘reward’ for succeeding in the first place.

These choices and opportunities in turn can lead to what the author Jim Collins called the undisciplined pursuit of more! They become the very seeds that will eventually lead to our failure.

Confronted with this challenge I have seen leaders unwittingly stumble down one of two paths, neither of which leads back to success as both are dead-ends.

The Dead End Options

  1. The path of the workaholic. The ill-advised and unhealthy belief that working harder will enable leaders to achieve more. In the short-term the productivity improvements demanded by this path do deliver increased performance. Thereby fooling us for a time that this is the path back to success. However, it eventually becomes apparent that this path leads to an out-of-balance lifestyle and, if followed too far, stress, eventual burn-out and ill health.
  • The path of the compromiser.  This path appeals to leaders who struggle to say ‘no’ and spread themselves over more and more opportunities. Walking down this path demands compromise, with both energy and enthusiasm. As a result the leaders on this path risk being spread too thin and become too diluted to make a substantial impact anywhere at all.

WIN = What’s Important Now?

I am curious that in many of my coaching sessions intelligent, ambitious people struggle to identify what is the priority for them right now? It is not an easy question to answer, so they have my empathy.  

As a side-bar it is worth noting here that the word ‘priority’ remained in singular from right up until the Industrial Revolution, after which the plural ‘priorities’ became popular parlance. I wonder if the word will evolve further as we progress through the digital revolution and even more ‘priorities’ emerge?

So what is important now? I have heard many leaders say, without a hint of irony, that the key priorities are….. Then proceed to list up to 10 things! The path to a dead-end is right in front of them.

It is absolutely critical leaders have the ability say ‘no’ and talk about the trade-offs associated with the choices they do make.

I have long contended that the ‘To Stop’ list is more important than the ‘To-Do’ list, however I concede that it is a much harder list to write. It is not the job of leaders to improve, it is their job to improve the right things. This is a much harder thing to do as it requires crystal clarity on both purpose and vision.

In Summary

The paradox of success looks something like this:

Phase 1 – We have clarity of purpose. As a result, we focus all our energy on a single, clearly defined vision and goal.

Phase 2 – We succeed. As a result increased options and opportunities are presented to us as a reward.

Phase 3 – We lose focus and spread ourselves too thin. We diffuse our energy and enthusiasm over the various options and opportunities presented to us and as a result the demands on our time grow dramatically.

Phase 4 – Distraction. We become distracted to what would otherwise have been our single focus and as a result the path back to success becomes shrouded in mist and stress levels grow.

The Antidote

The antidote to this paradox is what ‘Greg McKeown’ the author of the best-selling book ‘Essentialism’ calls the disciplined pursuit of less. The relentless ability to focus our precious time into those areas that really matter to us, and to those we serve.

To do this well will require leaders to acquire a new skill, the ability to say ‘NO’ intelligently. Many leaders struggle to use this word, and many simply do not use it at all! They could, but they don’t want to disappoint.

If any of these ideas resonate with you why not contact me and we can start a conversation. In the meantime, if you want something immediate to do then start by simply making a list of the things you can and should say ‘No’ to.

Trust me it can be very empowering!