The Favorites Game: The Lowdown on Luck

By: Kristin Clarke

Great by Choice coauthor Morten Hansen on his favorite business myth, nonconforming leader, and more.

"Greatness is not a function of circumstance or luck; it is a function of the path you choose for yourself. Great associations, I suspect, didn't get lucky; they chose a specific path," says Morten Hansen, management professor at University of California-Berkeley and coauthor with Jim Collins of Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.

The role of luck in determining business success was little studied prior to Great by Choice, and the duo were forced to pioneer a defensible methodology and definition to tackle the tricky subject of whether luck should be considered a formal element in organizational strategies.

Eventually, the questions narrowed to determine if a company achieved a high "return on luck"—that is, whether the organization wasted or leveraged good or bad luck well.

Hansen cites a favorite example of smart luck management: "IBM went to Digital Research … to get their leading operating systems for the first IBM PC, but the founder was out flying and didn't make the meeting. Then they went to Bill Gates, who didn't have an operating system, but he saw the opportunity and promised to have something for them."

Hansen's research generated other favorites:

Favorite debunked business assumption: Change or die. Our research: Change all the time is a good way to get yourself killed.

Favorite leadership trait: Fanatic discipline. It is an overlooked leadership trait, but it explains greatness, from Picasso to Bill Gates.

Favorite nonconforming leader: Herb Kelleher of Southwest, who settled a trade dispute not in a court of law but with an arm-wrestling match in a boxing ring full of employees.

Favorite mantra for sticking to a "20-mile march" toward success: You must do everything possible to hit your key target this month. You must, must do that!

Favorite example of innovation done right: Apple's iPod. It started as a small experiment in 2001. Then they added iTunes online. Then they added iTunes for Windows PCs. Then it took off. Evolution, not revolution.

Contributed by Kristin Clarke, a business journalist and writer for ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Additional Resources

To learn more about the three key leadership behaviors of "great by choice" organizations operating in a chaotic environment, see "The No-Excuses Guide to Greatness," by Kristin Clarke, Associations Now, February 2012

To learn how boards of directors factor into the success of "great by choice" organizations, see "Building a Great by Choice Organization: The Board Perspective," by Kristin Clarke.

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.