How Leaders Lose Their Luck

09 Mar. 2012 | Comments (0)

While researching our forthcoming book — Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck — my co-authors and I made a fascinating discovery: a surprising number of company founders and business-builders attribute much of their success to luck. Almost 25% of those we surveyed came out as "luck-dominant" on the Entrepreneurial Aptitude Test we devised; many more gave luck at least partial credit.

As we dug deeper, it became clear that it was not just random chance that these people were talking about. Luck in business can be cultivated, through the combination of what we call a lucky attitude and a lucky network. A lucky attitude is a disposition open to serendipity and, well, luck. A lucky network is a wide network of relationships that may at first have little to do with any business objective, but somehow later come into great relevance. We can all think of an example.

Here's the paradox, though. Once they have made it to the top — after they've reached high levels of entrepreneurial or corporate success — leaders often become disconnected from the crucial lucky qualities and relationships that helped get them there in the first place. By definition, the top is less of a journey and more of an arrival point. A newfound reputation is difficult to risk.

It turns out that the attributes associated with a lucky attitude and lucky network are the very attributes required for continuous and inspired leadership growth. Yes, you need confidence and conviction in your authority once you've reached the top. But you equally need humility and vulnerability if you want to evolve to an even more inspired type and level of leadership. Which is why it's so important for successful people to keep cultivating the attributes of a lucky attitude and a lucky network.

We've identified seven such attributes, and they are among the most difficult ones for leaders to master and maintain. They are: humility, intellectual curiosity, optimism, vulnerability, authenticity, generosity, and openness. Self-awareness around these seven qualities is key to not becoming a disconnected leader with nowhere to go but down. Below they are discussed in more detail.

Humility: People can mistake humility for weakness and avoid it so as not to lose perceived power. However, humility can actually increase one's influence. As Dale Carnegie wrote, "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you." Genuinely caring for and recognizing the talents of others makes one more accessible and, frankly, more-liked. Confidence is required to command respect, but humility is the necessary counter-balance to earn it.

Intellectual Curiosity: Leaders with intellectual curiosity more willingly prioritize meeting new people, listening to ideas, and relishing novel experiences. But day-to-day responsibilities often trump the time allotted to such pursuits, which may be deemed as trivial. But this is exactly the arrogance that allows new upstarts to unseat titans. Instead of asking questions, leaders as they mature usually answer them. What is your Ask-to-Answer Ratio? The ratio is likely higher during the early trajectory of leadership growth and lower during the crescent of it. Make time to be curious! Work it into you calendar and don't cancel. Set goals to meet new people and try new things.

Optimism: An optimistic disposition has a magnifying effect. People are captivated by positive attitude. But leaders are expected to dissent, find the holes in logic, and predict pitfalls. While these skills are key, they don't need to be a leader's first instinct, especially when presented with a new idea. The most evolved leaders can hold back their gut-criticism (even if based on experience) and first try to process and contemplate all the reasons why a new idea might work better or the potential in a talent before the weaknesses. I use something I call the 24x3 rule to help me master leading with optimism

Vulnerability: Power, strength, and confidence are attributes that leaders are expected to project to employees and investors. But vulnerability humanizes leaders, creating a "pull" of people towards you. People who ask for help often find others rallying behind them, fueled by a feeling of being needed and collectively working towards success. Again it is a difficult but essential yin-yang balance to achieve — to be confident with a willingness to take risks and embrace failure.

Authenticity: Your dealings with your network should be authentic expressions of your interests and feelings. In a U.S. presidential election year, it is a shame once again to be challenged to find the true person inside of the political candidate. Leaders, like politicians, are all too often over-positioned and under-authenticated. Awash in positioning statements, investor decks iterated umpteen times, and memorandums carefully crafted by communications experts, you can lose the authenticity in yourself and in the true purpose behind your company. Worse, you can start believing the spin around you.

Generosity: Power brings with it innumerable requests for favors. So it makes sense for successful leaders to be discriminating. But never lose the spirit of generosity; instead, allocate it appropriately. Remaining a mentor to others, connecting with community activities, simply saying more "thank-you's," and doing more things without over-thinking the potential "value-exchange" equation, is a pay-it-forward attitude that in the long-run usually pays off in spades. Plus, it just feels good to be generous.

Openness: In the eyes of the lucky, openness is about welcoming things that might not fit a traditional mold. Be willing to receive intelligence and wisdom from all sources in an effort to further one's view of the world. Do you only give credence to facts if they are in The New York Times, or do you listen to people whose positional power may be low but whose real-world experience is high? The open source software phenomenon, and crowdsourcing more broadly, was built on this notion that insights and good work can come from anywhere.

Seven Really Tough Qualities to Master

These seven qualities are what make for luck, but also for real leadership character. They are hard to master, and can also be at odds with leadership authority as they expose weaknesses and might even lead to some failures. But the biggest risk for top leaders is being complacent and overconfident — which amounts to being disconnected from the reality, attitude, and relationships that can sustain and take excellence to a new place.

By staying connected to what led to success in the first place, by embracing the right attitude and relationships, one creates the potential for a higher state of leadership. Be willing to shed the shield of success in favor of going for more evolved leadership and inspired growth.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 2/29/2012.

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  • About the Author: Anthony Tjan

    Anthony Tjan Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball and vice chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon.

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