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Future success is not guaranteed – for anyone

Apr 12, 2009 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and came crashing down into the sea. He became giddy with excitement at his ability to fly, and was punished for his over-confidence.

That is a Greek fable, but all societies have their tales about the phenomenon of hubris – the excessive pride or arrogance that so many achievers develop, and which prefaces their eventual downfall. Hubris was actually considered a sin and a crime in ancient Greece. “Pride goes before a fall” is the proverb we all know.

Hubris undid B. Ramalinga Raju, the boss of India’s Satyam Computer. So successful was he in getting huge outsourcing contracts from western markets for his firm that he began to think of himself as unassailable. The West is always looking for success stories from developing countries, and it feted Raju and his company. He was given great international honours and asked to appear and speak regularly at those global events where the apparently high and the seemingly mighty rub shoulders.

At home, too, Raju was a rock-star CEO: always in the press, always in the public eye, talking the good talk about business, preaching good ethics and philanthropy, even winning awards for corporate governance.

Well, as we now know, it was all a sham. Raju could not sustain his heady early success, and he resorted to faking the numbers. He inflated his profit margins, gave out overstated employee numbers, and put a fictitious $1 billion on his balance sheet. No one – not regulators in the three countries where Satyam was listed, not his auditors, not his fellow shareholders – noticed a thing. Until the fiction became too great, and he ran out of ways of keeping it covered up.

Now, Raju languishes in jail, awaiting trial on fraud charges. Now, he is a villain, no longer the corporate titan who was supposedly setting the example for India’s youth. Now, his many awards are forgotten and his legacy lies in tatters. Now, the West tries to forget every association it had with him. Now, the media that adored him vilifies him. Now, an entire industry is nervous about spillover effects of this scandal.

I think we should pay great interest to this event, for we too are prone to the ailment of hubris. Here in Kenya, we often get carried away with a little success and start to dream that we are demigods who think and live at a different level from ordinary people. That is the first stage of our downfall. The other stages will follow, as night follows day.

Actually, every person on the planet, regardless of achievement, is no better than “a speck on a speck.” This lesson was taught to me by a spiritual teacher years ago, and I have recounted it on this page before. At the end of the day, I am just one of many billions of people on this planet. This planet is itself one of untold billions in the universe. So I am indeed utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. No matter how much I achieve, I am expendable and forgettable.

This insignificance is not just at the personal level. Big organisations and companies also come and go. There was no Microsoft and no Google just a few years ago. Utility companies and railroad giants once ruled the roost of the corporate world. Big banks were at the forefront of the world until last year; they are in free-fall now. The world keeps changing; what was once important becomes trivial soon after.

Strategies also don’t sustain you. Your company could be doing everything right for a few years. You clock great numbers, everyone wants to work for you and be associated with you, and your leaders are extolled everywhere they go. But be assured of one thing: whatever you’re doing now is no guarantee of success in future. Things change. There is no formula that gives enduring success. To deliver outstanding performance and returns over a long period is a mammoth task, one that will require you to reinvent your thinking many times.

This is a lesson we must all learn. Luck plays a more important role in our lives than we care to admit. Sometimes, what looks like great judgement is just a case of being in the right place at the right time. Often, success is caused more by the people around us than ourselves.

How do we cope in this maelstrom? First, by staying humble and not believing our own myth. And second, by staying ready to move with the punches and change our game plan when needed. No one is spared this fact of life. No matter what dramatic success companies like Safaricom or Equity Bank or EABL have demonstrated, their future is not assured in the slightest. They could be undone by their own complacency, by unforeseeable changes in their markets, or just by plain bad luck.

Wisdom lies in recognising both your own insignificance and your potentially imminent demise, and living with it.

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