After 15 years in a leadership and management positions, I have discovered that I repeatedly find one hurdle particularly difficult to reconcile. I have wrestled with it over and over when working with my staff on problems they are facing, asking myself this question:
“Is their problem or situation a product of their lack of luck in life, or is it a result of the choices they have made?”
On the one hand, I of course believe that a person’s environment shapes them. If a person grows up in a stable, loving and supportive environment with family and friends around them, that person will generally turn out differently to someone who was raised by abusive parents in an isolated existence with no support or care.
However, on the other hand, I also believe that a person is not a passenger in their life. They are in control of their choices, and the choices they choose to make will also have an impact on the ultimate trajectory of their life, the situations they find themselves in, and the problems they may face.
Allow me to present two stories, of experiences faced by two men in my business – both have enjoyed what many would describe as a “successful fulfilled life”, however their stories appear as poles apart.
Lucky Guy (LG)
1. LG was born a white, male, Anglo-Saxon in Australia
2. LG came from a loving family – he was instilled with strong Christian values from his parents and he was provided with a largely supportive and loving environment in which to grow up in.
3. LG’s parents had stable employment and whilst his family was never rich, they certainly were never poor.
4. LG was good at sport as a child.
5. Because LG was good at sport, he had no problems making friends.
6. Because LG had lots of friends, he developed good social skills.
7. Because LG had good social skills, he ended up being a decent recruiter.
8. LG was lucky enough to continue holding onto a fantastic group of supportive friends whilst he was growing up.
9. Unfortunately for LG, at around the age of 16, LG’s father developed Bipolar. Luckily though, at 16 LG was not old enough to really understand what mental illness was and try to help, but he was old enough to be able to go and hang out with these friends and get out of the house avoiding what was a pretty toxic environment. LG’s sister was 19 and was not so lucky, as she was at an age where she felt like she could help her mum, while his younger brother was 13 and also not so lucky, as he couldn’t help but nor was he old enough to spend all of his time with friends.
10. After university LG got only one job offer, but it so happened that this job was perfectly suited to him and he was good at it.
11. LG was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in his role.
12. LG had ten years in this business and during this time, the industry in which they operated expanded hugely.
13. LG was lucky to buy a house that increased quickly in value, which gave him some financial security to start a business
14. LG was very lucky to have a wife that was willing to support him in that decision.
15. After 4 years in this business, LG was lucky enough to find two new business partners who were completely aligned with how he wanted to run the business.
16. Luckily the new business partners’ previous employer had parted ways with three incredibly good people, who were able to come on board without breaking any contractual restrictions allowing LG’s business to grow.
17. Throughout all this, LG was lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive wife that supported him every step of the way.
Good Choices Guy (GCG)
1. GCG chose to work hard in almost all things he did; his sport, his study and his work.
2. GCG went to the local public school but chose to work hard to get decent marks.
3. GCG always worked part-time during school and university and developed a good work ethic as a result.
4. Whilst GCG was growing up his father was very sick, but he chose to not let it get him down.
5. Whilst not enjoying his field of study, GCG chose to stick it out and earn his degree.
6. GCG chose to be a good saver and not spend money frivolously, which enabled him to buy a house soon after getting married.
7. GCG chose to spend the first 6 years of his career working 5 days a week, 8am – 7pm.
8. Despite meeting his wife at a young age, GCG chose to stay in a long-term relationship through his twenties when his friends chose to be single.
9. When GCG left his first job, he chose to start his own business instead of working for someone else.
10. Four years into this business, his business partner departed, but rather than give up, GCG chose to bring two other business partners into the organisation and give it another go.
11. GCG chose to put people first in his organisation – a strategy which led to explosive growth and a successful business.
As you may have guessed, Lucky Guy and Good Choices Guy are the same person. They’re me.
You could view that my life and the good things in it are a product of luck, or that they are a result of the good choices I made, consistently.
It is an unfortunate fact that we all have biases – often ingrained in us - as to which way we view a person’s circumstances. However, after countless instances of having this conversation in my head, of considering the problems faced by my people and what led them to those, then considering my own life and being able to describe it so clearly in both manners, where I have landed is that life is a combination of both luck and choice.
When I lead people, I need to understand that a person is of course impacted by their circumstances, and their history, but I also need to encourage them to make good choices.
Generally speaking, my experience with other businesses is that business leaders tend to over index on encouraging good choices, without acknowledging the role of luck. There is often more going on than first appears and luck (and the cumulative advantages little pieces of luck deliver to a person’s circumstances) plays just as important role in a persons life as choice. In my opinion, if you can find the balance between an understanding of the impact of luck, combined with the encouragement of good choices, you’re on the path to expanding your ability to lead.