Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

What Does Luck Have to Do With It?

with 4 comments

Andrew Carnegie

It is often easy to attribute the success of great and influential leaders to pure luck. Undoubtedly, some turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time. However, they also had to have the right skills and abilities to build on the opportunities presented to them.

“[Andrew] Carnegie (Carnegie Steel) was well aware that his success was in large part the result of being in the right place at the right time. Obviously, he had business and personal skills to help carry him, but Carnegie was introduced to the right industry (telegraph), where he met the right businessmen, who then introduced him to investing and the steel industry. And this just wasn’t the steel industry that we see today. It was the steel industry in the times of America’s expansion west. Hundreds of thousands of railroad miles, a majority made from Carnegie steel.” [1]

P.T. Barnum (Ringling Brothers & Barnum Circus) noted, “There is no such thing in the world as luck. There never was a man who could go out in the morning and find a purse full of gold in the street today, and another tomorrow, and so on, day after day: He may do so once in his life; but so far as mere luck is concerned, he is as liable to lose it as to find it. ‘Like causes produce like effects.’ If a man adopts the proper methods to be successful, ‘luck’ will not prevent him. If he does not succeed, there are reasons for it, although, perhaps, he may not be able to see them.” [2]

While luck and happenstance do play varying roles, success is more attributable to creativity, hard work, foresight and preparation. Take the example of James J. Hill (Great Northern Railway) where “part of the notable accomplishment of Hill and his associates lay in simple luck… But more important were Hill’s talents: his remarkable mastery over every detail of what was now a far-flung operation, his vision of the inevitable triumph of transcontinental through-carriers, his insufferable iron will and work ethic, and his recruitment of an able coterie of men…” [3]

Ray Kroc (McDonald’s) observed, Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.’ Despite all his hard work, Kroc was not always a lucky man. From his early days in starting up McDonald’s to even after the chain was a well-established global presence, Kroc experienced his fair share of failures. He was not immune to disappointment; what set Kroc apart from his competitors, however, was how he learned from his failures and bounced back.” [4]

For Milton Hershey (Hershey Foods), success was not simply a matter of luck. Having learned from his past failures, he had become a shrewd and astute businessman.” [5]

The skills and characteristics the great and influential leaders employed enabled them to identify and maximize the opportunities that presented themselves. These individuals may have been lucky in being at the right place at the right time, but far more was required to capitalize upon available opportunities, which were presented to them. Many others at the same time were presented with similar opportunities. Yet they failed to achieve similar levels of success. This was because they didn’t possess the same skills, competencies and knowledge to understand what was needed to grasp the significance of the opportunities, and the actions and practices to maximize them.

[1]  Begley Jonathan, Book Review: Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw (http://jonathanbegley.wordpress.com, January 5, 2010)

[2]  Barnum P.T., Money Getting or Golden Rules for Making Money (Self-Published)

[3]  Michael P. Malone, James J. Hill – Empire Builder of the Northwest (University of Oklahoma Press – Norman 1996) p. 150

[4]  Use Failure as a Catalyst for Success (greatmanagement.org, February 12, 2009)

[5]  Milton S. Hershey (www.ideafinder.com)

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great. What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about role of luck and happenstance in the lives  of the great American leaders through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz All Rights Reserved


Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

August 23, 2011 at 10:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. Almost every success story contains the necessary element of luck and opportunity. A lot of people work hard, are persistent, educated and do not achieve what these people have achieved. Most success stories represent the perfect confluence of opportunity, luck and an idea whose time has come. Many people have the traits, work ethic and persistence to accomplish what these people have accomplished. The road to riches is littered with the remains of hard working, persistent, talented, educated people who were only lacking luck and opportunity. The truth seldom makes for a good motivational poster or speech. Quite often, those whose task it is to “motivate the troops” assume that individuals are in control and they clearly are not. “Be this! Do that! And you will be a success.” That is simply not true. However, if people do not try, they will accomplish nothing, that much is certain.


    November 21, 2011 at 9:05 am

  2. […] Related: What Does Luck Have to Do With It? […]

  3. […] Related: What Does Luck Have to Do With It? […]

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