The Trouble With Success

Routines can be so comforting. After about three weeks of continuous crazy travel,  I recently had a few days at home to luxuriate in the normalcy of everyday life – my own bed, my own gym, my own food, my own stuff –  wow, I think those days were better than any I’ve spent at any resort anywhere in the world. Everything was so great, I just wanted to stay in that zone for about a month or two . . . . Then, the projects began calling, meeting requests started flying and so here I sit, back in another hotel room. Oh well, progress doesn’t get cultivated by sitting at a desk.

At the end of Day Two at the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, we addressed Pickett’s Charge, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee made one last gambit and lost (10,000 casualties in about 45 minutes). The question of whether the Charge was the right strategy overall is open to conjecture (Dr. Jared Peatman says yes and he convinced me of that as well, but that’s an issue for another day); however, the teaching point of the vignette is the irony of how success tends to dangerously breed overconfidence in leaders. As a result, we become stubborn, insisting on a formulaic approach to problem solving and overlooking situational differences – some subtle, some that should smack us in the face. On the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, these variations produced catastrophic results.

The starting point for Pickett’s Charge – 1.5 miles uphill into blazing cannons and withering musket fire

Despite the fact that it was undermanned, underequipped, and underpaid, save one “tie,” the Army of Northern Virginia was undefeated in major engagements with the Union when it arrived in Gettysburg. According to Steven Wiley, the difference was clearly leadership: the Confederate Generals, starting at the top with Robert E. Lee, had just performed brilliantly, while the Union Generals, well, less so, and there was every reason to believe that this trend would continue. Instead, the exact opposite occurred: Union officers provided strategically sound and inspiring leadership, while their counterparts developed questionable strategies and made critical tactical errors.

So, what changed? According to Wiley, Lee’s problems stemmed from:

  • New people in key leadership roles (he had replacement officers filling in for those killed or wounded);
  • A recent reorganization (his Army was subdivided from two Corps into three);
  • A communications system breakdown (he lost touch with his Cavalry – in those days the “eyes & ears” of the Army); and
  • Operating in a new, unfamiliar environment (being on the offensive in foreign territory as opposed to defending Virginia).

Despite all of these factors and, over the objections of his most trusted subordinate, General James Longstreet, Lee knew that, based upon their past outcomes, his Army would achieve the same results at Gettysburg that they had elsewhere, hence the bold (obstinate, reckless?) Charge.  Instead, the disastrous result – what Wiley termed a “predictable surprise” – sounds awfully familiar to any experienced leader. Ironically, the successes we’ve achieved in the past can easily become our Achilles heel by breeding overconfidence & complacency, masking mistakes, and causing us to underestimate the complexity of the situation and the strength of the competition.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been able to move between professional services organizations and operating companies a few times, so I had no trouble relating to Wiley’s analysis. At a base level, success in professional services is all about creating defined processes – templates, P&P’s, frameworks, etc.  – and then executing them repeatedly thereafter with precision. In a previous consulting firm, we had a Team that had become highly skilled at managing the templated deployment of a particular software package. Week after week, location after location, the Team executed according to the Plan and the system would Go Live. Great work! Let’s celebrate & do it again (as long as the software keeps selling and you can continue to hump the travel).

Later on, in an operating context, I brought a number of my gang in to help develop and deploy some software for our own use. However, we had different executives responsible for the daily aspects of the effort; we had recently restructured some of the operating divisions and changed their management; we had a fundamentally different communication model – all internal as opposed to externally managed; and we had the Team members working as local employees as opposed to traveling fee-for-service consultants.  While the software was ultimately delivered, the project took many times longer than expected (at a much higher price of course), the end product was probably just “good enough” (as opposed to great), and the process was frankly downright painful (no happy closing dinner at the end).

In retrospect, using our beloved templated consulting process in the radically different & rapidly changing operating context was definitely a predictable surprise. It’s true that success breeds success . . . but not always. Robert E. Lee – by all accounts a great leader – nevertheless fell victim to the Trouble With Success at Gettysburg which, among the many great lessons learned from the battle, reminds us to stay open-minded in our approach and ever-vigilant to signs that our “formula for success” may not be the right recipe for a particular circumstance.

Monument to CSA General Robert E. Lee at the base of Pickett’s Charge

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting. Take care.

About Denis

Business Leader, Consultant & Social Entrepreneur. Proven senior executive leader with deep experience guiding companies throughout various lifecycle phases including start-up, rapid growth and maturity. Principal of YellowPark Garden, providing executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.
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1 Response to The Trouble With Success

  1. Bev Brosnan says:


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