Do leaders need to be lucky?

Do leaders need to be lucky?

Napoleon once remarked that the kind of generals he most wanted in his army were lucky ones. In recent weeks, I have been talking to a fascinating variety of leaders in preparation for a series of podcasts about leadership inspiration which I will be launching soon with The Marketing Society. The importance of luck and the role that successful leaders see it playing in their careers has been a recurring theme.

Sir Vince Cable is a politician who has risen to prominence relatively late in life. Having stood for Parliament unsuccessfully on several occasions, the first 35 years of his career were spent in a variety of academic, commercial and public sector roles. “I went from one interesting job to another as they arose and I looked for opportunities, but to say that there was a plan behind it would be deeply flattering!” he admits.

It wasn’t until 1997 that he finally achieved his ambition of becoming an MP, going on to become a senior Cabinet minister a decade later. “I felt in my 60s that I was actually doing what I wanted to do and I felt well qualified to do it,” he reflects. Another ten years later and Sir Vince remains at the heart of the country’s political establishment, now serving as the leader of the Liberal Democrat party at the age of 74. “A lot of politics is about luck,” he reflects. “For a lot of my life I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I finished up in the right place at the right time.”

Martha Lane Fox is another high profile leader who is very conscious of the role that luck has played in her career. Together with her colleague Brent Hoberman, she founded and became one of the winners in the dotcom boom when the company was bought for £570 million in 2005. “We got very lucky,” she explains. “Yes, we had an amazing idea – and I can say that because it was Brent’s! Yes, we worked very hard. Yes, we had an incredible team around us. But as anybody who works in a startup knows, it’s also about luck. The luck of timing, the luck of getting investment, the luck of technology working, the right conflagration of different events. So it was chaos – relentless chaos – but we got lucky in some brilliant, key bits of the business.”

As I reflect on the way these leaders and others like them talk about luck, I am struck by the sense of humility that often lies behind their perspectives. They recognise that they alone are not responsible for their success, nor indeed for any failures along the way, and that circumstances beyond their control have played an important part. There is also a feeling of gratitude, and in some cases even surprise, that the cards have fallen so far in their favour.

Admirable as these qualities are, my own view is that it can be misleading to attribute too much of our success in life to luck. There is no doubt that we need favourable opportunities to open up for us, but the people destined for success are the ones that maximise their chances of encountering those opportunities in the first place. They also have the insight to spot them when they arise and the talent, drive and resilience to exploit them fully when they do.

Sir Vince Cable may have taken some time to reach the top of British politics, but he never gave up despite repeated setbacks and disappointments earlier in his life. The deep economic expertise and experience he built up during those years stood him in great stead just when it mattered. “As the financial crisis approached, I became a kind of national celebrity because, I think, I’d been saying fundamentally the right things about what was happening in the economy,” he observes.

Martha Lane Fox’s eventual commercial success with was particularly remarkable taking into account the fact the company’s share price collapsed from £5 to 19p within two weeks of its initial public offering in 2000. “It was brutal because we were trying to keep 3000 people motivated, all of whom thought they might be millionaires and now had absolutely no options worth anything,” she remembers. “We got lucky. The disreality of the stock market was actually not linked to our own experience of growing the business and we plugged away and luckily things came good.” Luckily – really? Or was it down to the quality of the leadership that she and Brent Hoberman provided to steer the business through such troubled waters?

If we want to be lucky generals in whatever field we choose to work in, there seem to me to be some useful lessons in all of this. If we focus on committing ourselves to work we love, that we’re good at and that we believe in, I firmly believe that exciting opportunities will arise. They may not emerge in a form we could have predicted, but if we approach life with a mindset of openness, curiosity and positivity, emerge they surely will. And if we put ourselves out there in the world in a way that connects us with fresh ideas, interesting people and new experiences, it won’t take long before the dots begin to join up for us. 

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Napoleon: “All great events hang by a hair. I believe in luck, and the wise man neglects nothing which contributes to his destiny.” Well said!