The Success Trap

Published on April 26, 2013 by

Robert is the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. It's not the biggest company around by far, but it's not tiny either. He brought me in and said, "Our sales are down this year and I have to do something now." I asked Robert, "How were sales last year." He replied, "They were down last year as well." I asked more questions and he answered each one thoughtfully and then we scheduled another meeting.

Robert then asked me to send him a proposal to turn things around. I told him that was premature and suggested on more meeting and he agreed. The next week came around and we met and included the sales director this time. That's when things got interesting. The sales director went on and on about how they were one of the leaders in their industry and were doing quite well despite the economy.

He talked about how some of their competitors had closed their doors and others were struggling big time. In short, he hypnotized the CEO into believing they were doing better than they were. He said they were doing "good" in bad times.

I looked at Robert, the CEO and asked him if that was acceptable. Was "good" acceptable when they were capable of thriving? Robert then began to argue that things weren't as bad as he thought and that they should just "stay the course" for now.

Robert is a good CEO and the sales director is a good sales director. And that's the problem. There's a reason Jim Collins said "Good is the enemy of great." Because it is. When it comes to looking in the mirror and at the results we produce, what do most of us do? We focus on where we are successful (and often exaggerate that) and tell ourselves we will get to the challenges tomorrow.

We're trapped by our successes--and that's why we call it the "Success Trap." We're trapped and what's worse, we don't even know it. We're not in much pain yet. Our success numbs us to whatever discomfort we feel and it's easy to ignore. That's what most of us do.

A relatively small percentage of us take the positive energy from our success and achievements and build on that. That's the key to thriving. Unfortunately, too many of us wait until the pain is so bad we can't ignore it any longer. By that time, we aren't in the "Success Trap" any longer. Now we're in a crisis. That's what always happens when we stay in the "Success Trap" too long.

If things are going well for you at work and in life, that's wonderful. Just don't get lulled into complacency. Realize that if we're not steadily improving on all fronts, we'll find ourselves in the "Success Trap"--and we probably won't even know it. Robert doesn't know it yet--but it's just a matter of time.


  1. Frank

    Is better best? Is good enough. Good questions and a great post Alan. After much soul searching I've discovered that too often the ego of better, quickly mires the pontential of best. It has been, for me anyway, too easy to fall into the success trap and to become complacent with successfully making that first, second or third step, and then to pause and look back at how far I've come! Then, wrapped in the warm glow of those first few steps, I have asked myself if "this could be enough; couldn't it? I mean after all I'm certainly not where I used to be, right? And why do I need this or that, to do this or that? I've earned the rest havn't I? Who needs dreams anyway?" Once again Alan thanks for the nudge toward the rest of the journey!
    Frank Cole

    • Alan Allard

      Frank, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, I appreciate it. We've all been in the places you describe--it's a good thing we can change. In terms of "I'm certainly not where I used to be, right?"--we can use the positive energy of the progress we have made to continue to learn, change and transform instead of being complacent. It's a matter of appreciating our growth, celebrating it and honoring our natural desire and drive for continued growth.

  2. TJ Trent


    An awesome post! What made you good will not necessarily make you great! The Creed of the Army Non-Commissioned Officer begins "No one is more professional than I, I am a Non-Commissioned Officer, a Leader of Soldiers..."

    The Second paragraph says (among other things) "...all Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership, I will provide that leadership..."

    For me I want to go from good to great to outstanding! I want to help make every leader in our Armed services outstanding! And I am starting with myself.

    • Alan Allard

      TJ, I love what you wrote here: "I want to help make every leader in our Armed services outstanding! And I am starting with myself." "I am starting with myself needs to be first and foremost on every leaders mind--whether we are a leader in the military, a company, a family, a neighborhood--wherever, we all need to start with self. Thanks for the reminder.

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