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Success breeds complacency

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It’s competition that forces companies to get out of their complacency.”

— John Mackey


This time of year, I start a lot of fires in our wood stove. When starting a new fire, as I am closing the door to the wood stove, the velocity of the airflow increases, creating turbulence in the firebox that promotes the growth of the fire.

Sometimes turbulence can promote healthy growth for humans and the businesses they run, as well. In contrast, when the air is too calm, the fire is quenched.

Years ago I was approached by one of two brothers that owned a well-established retail store. He knew of my work as a business adviser with other businesses and sought my help in keeping their success going. I met with that brother, and he was excited to get to work. He introduced me to the second brother, who served as the president of the company. His response was just the opposite.

With great pride, he described their market dominance, their sales growth, and their reputation with their customers. With equally great pride, he informed me he had never spent even a minute planning any of it. “I can’t predict what will happen tomorrow. Why would I waste my time planning for a year or more into the future?”

Knowing I cannot help people that don’t want help, I thanked them for their time and left.

A few years later, the company was out of business and the president was in jail.

Humans are all too eager to accept responsibility for their success, even when they had little to do with it. Taking responsibility for a company’s success can lead to pride, to arrogance, to unearned self-confidence, and to complacency. This inevitably leads to a crash.

The unspoken mindset is this: “I don’t know what I did right, but it sure worked. I’ll just keep doing it. Dang, I’m good!”

With that as a foundation, we make decisions with increasing confidence but inadequate expertise or control. Then comes the crash. Not knowing what we did right in the first place, we do it again, hoping for a repeat.

Some ideas for preventing this:

  • Give credit where credit is due. Rather than pat yourself on the back when things go well, thank those who likely had a lot – maybe even more – to do with that success. That might mean customers, suppliers and employees
  • Recognize that the real credit might best be given to being in the right place, at the right time
  • With that in mind, do not unreasonably assume that you will be in the right place at the right time next time
  • Create your own crisis. If success breeds complacency, stir things up a bit. Create a moon-landing-type goal. Push the envelope of what can be done. Squash the good-enough attitudes that can so easily permeate a successful company
  • When things go well, try to figure out the formula behind that success: what are the various elements that produced that success? Then repeat it and see if success is repeated
  • When things do no go well, figure out the formula behind the failure. Understand all that contributed to the failure and work hard to prevent a repeat.


 Dave Bartholomew is the founder of Ascent Advising LLC, working with “corner office” people around the globe to define and achieve their unique definition of success. He and is wife, Nancy, co-founded Simply Living Farm, a shop in Leavenworth providing goods for a sustainable life. He can be reached at Dave@AscentAdvising.com.