Are successful leaders lucky?

The Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of this world are often described as just lucky. But is that really the secret behind their success?Watch Morten Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley and Insead, describe the charachteristics of leaders that make their organisations thrive in times of chaos and uncertainty:

Hansen studied high performing leaders and what he found goes against what we commonly believe about successful leadership.

Bold & visionary leaders a thing of the past?

That’s the case according to Hansen. He brings up people like Bill Gates as prime examples of great leaders. Apparently Gates had no vision at all, in fact he was often wrong in his predictions.

Outstanding leaders instead create a future for their empirical trials. If the trials work out according to plan, they invest in the new idea. In other words, leadership is not about big bets but safe bets. Buffett is a prime example of such a leader which has led to an abundance of investors making fun of him and saying he had lost it.

We all have good & bad luck

Good and bad events happen to all people and in all organisations. They are out of your control and not expected. Good or bad luck is another way of describing it.

When comparing companies that are successful with companies that are not, Hansen’s study found that they had more or less the same amount of good and bad luck happening to them. So he concluded that success had nothing to do with luck.

Did luck make Warren Buffett a billionaire?

Did luck really make Warren Buffett a billionaire?

If not luck, then what?

What the study found was that the well performing leaders and companies had a higher return on the good luck they got because they seized the moment.

So how do you get higher return?

Successful leaders are prepared for bad luck, i.e. make sure that if worst comes to worst they know what to do.

They are prepared to seize the moment when good luck strikes. Bill Gates is a good example of that when he was still at Harvard but realised he couldn’t finish his studies because he had to seize the moment when it came to personal computers.

And the third point is to execute brilliantly when you have good luck. That’s how you get a higher return on luck.

Do you agree with Morten Hansen that luck has nothing to do with success? Are we great by choice? Should we, like Bill Gates, have nightmare memos to be prepared for the worst that can happen? Are you one hundred percent committed and focused on succeeding with what you are doing? Are you creative in an empirical way i.e. don’t make one big investment into a new area but spend years trying out a new concept and only when it shows that it’s a great idea do you take the risk of moving into that area. Do you seize the moment when good luck strikes? If so, according to Morten Hanson you are a great leader and not an average one.

Video: HarvardBusiness – You Tube – Photo: Aaron Friedman

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80 Responses to “Are successful leaders lucky?”

  1. catarinaalexon Says:

    Maybe you are more keen on Warren Buffett, Leora? Am no fan of either or anybody else for that matter.

    Personally am not keen on Microsoft, but like what The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing. Recently read Warren Buffett's biography and the way he operates is super smart. Actually it's just what Hansen described as the traits needed to succeed. Most of them are definitely genetic.

    Found Hansen's conclusions very interesting. Not least since I have a huge dose of the traits from my father. Learnt from his mistake however, not to bee too bold when it comes to investment and that's why I investingate and try out ideas before going ahead. Having said that though, if the innovation doesn't involve any investment I am bold:-)

    Have never thought of myself as driven because it's simply normal to me. But people keep telling me I am:-) But that doesn't prevent me from now and then being lazy:-) Honestly am of the opinon that, not only I but most human beings, are driven when we really believe in something. If not, our drive goes out the window.

  2. catarinaalexon Says:

    Mika, don't you think we all create our own luck? If not, we jcould just sit down and wait for luck to strike. Haven't you noticed that the more we do the more we achieve?

  3. GuyW Says:

    As Gary Player most famously said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I firmly believe we (can) create our own luck – it's, as you say, Catarina, about being alive to the possibilities and seizing the moment when it comes – carpe occasionem…

    I agree that great leaders provide the place to spot opportunities, seize them as they emerge and then ensure strong execution.

  4. M.Kamal Says:


  5. DrDuke2000 Says:

    Two thoughts.

    1) Malcolm Gladwell discusses Bill Gates success in "Outliers: The Story of Success." Timing is everything – being in the right place at the right time with the right people and resources. Maybe this is a definition of luck. Gladwell's vignette about Gates is very instructive.

    2) One of my favorite sayings is "luck is preparedness meeting opportunity."

    Were Buffet and Gates just lucky? Depends on your definition of luck.

  6. Susan Oakes Says:

    Hi Catarina,

    While it could be called luck I think as per the Bill Gates example they saw a potential opportunity and worked on it. Many who are not successful see the hard work that may be required and wait until it lands in their lap which doesn't happen.
    My recent post Differentiate Your Freebies To Attract Customers

  7. Mika Castro Says:

    Hello Catarina, I think that too. But the leaders have their luck because they give a lot of effort to reach it.

  8. catarinaalexon Says:

    Kamal, it that's the case all we have to do is sit down and wait for luck:-)

  9. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad we agree, Guy.

  10. catarinaalexon Says:

    Bethany, being fanatical about succeeding is the same thing as being passionate about it. And we all know that's the key to success. And being prepared for the worst is crucial. If not you are caught "with your pants down". Having said that it's not possible to be prepared for everything because sometimes something happens that you couldn't imagine in your wildest dreams.

  11. catarinaalexon Says:

    Excellent way of putting it Susan.

  12. catarinaalexon Says:

    Duke, if you are in the right place, the right people and resources at the same time and do nothing about it – nothing happens. So tha't missing out on getting lucky. Preparedness meeting opportunity is creating your own luck. So Gates created his own luck when he left Harvard to seize the opportunity.

    If you read Buttett's biography you will find that he created his own luck. He mainly read up on shares 24/7 and made safe bets. This started out already when he was a teenager. Keep in mind that he was a nobody from Omaha, Nebraska so he didn't have a fortune that he could speculate on. He is selfmade.

  13. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes, Mika they work really hard, fucus and create their own luck by seizing the moment and being prepared for the worst.

  14. DrDuke2000 Says:

    Caterina – of course one must act when an opportunity presents itself. As the saying goes, "he who hesitates is lost." Gladwell makes a convincing argument that Gates was born at the right time and that his mother made a fortuitous decision making an early computing device available to Gates and his school. Gladwell also mentions the 10,000 hour rule. This is preparedness.

    Now there is an element of luck in the story of Bill Gates and Microsoft. Allegedly, fledgling Microsoft was not IBM's first choice for the IBM PC. They wanted Gary Kildall's DRI and the industry leading CPM operating system. According to legend, Kildall had other priorities and did not have time to talk to the IBM representatives. The story is recounted in a October 24, 2004 Business Week article "The Man Who Could Have Been Bill Gates."

    Gates was at the right place at the right time and was prepared for the opportunity, but if Kildall had acted when the opportunity was presented to him Microsoft may have languished and eventually disappeared as did many software startups of the 1970s and 80s. But the opportunity was presented to Gates and he acted.

  15. GiHopkins Says:

    Cat-arina, It's preparedness & the sum total of their decisions, like craps. It helps to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth. If the dog didn't stop to poop he would have caught the rabbit. A dog like Billy did not stop and if he applied to work at his company he would not get hired. Are these "smart" people or are they just fulfilling their destiny. Someone check Billys' depends, by the amount he is injecting innocent souls with junk science vaccines, he may have an eternal price to pay. Please do not respond emotionally, study the facts first. Bless, G

  16. Bindhurani Says:

    I read the book "Luck Factor" few years back. People who consider themselves lucky will be able to seize the luck according to the author.
    Great leader are all driven by their ideas. The fire that motivates them to take action is so strong that it cannot be overlooked.
    Many of the Self Help gurus have told about the burning desire and going after that desire to make it happen. The thing is how a person can keep that desire alive when downfalls/ obstacles come on the way.
    Thanks for sharing the idea. Love the article. It stimulates my mind.
    My recent post Crochet to Relax

  17. catarinaalexon Says:

    GiHopkins, You obviously have something against Bill Gates. Why don't you read up on Warren Buffett and you will find that he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's a complete nobody from Omaha, Nebraska.

    By the way, this article is not about Gates and Buffett, they are just examples of successful leaders with the traits Hansen's study found essential.

  18. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with the results of Hansen's study, Pat.

  19. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like it Bindhurani. Good points you are making.

  20. @jepaladino Says:

    I had a boss, a CEO, who once said let's try for the 70% solution. What he meant is that if we wait for the perfect solution we'll never take the next step. We'll never get it perfect, so get started and perfect it along the way. My father always told his children, and I follow his wisdom to this day: always try for that extra 10%. Always put that extra 10% of effort into something if you want to successful. Nothing beats hard work.

    My recent post Zen and the Art of Banishing Writer’s Block

  21. jeevanjacobjohn Says:

    I don't completely agree with Hansen, but I can understand what he is saying. Chance is important, so is hard work. I believe that we can essentially change the effects of our "luck" by taking action – for example: Preparing our company for the worst things or taking small steps to improve our success.

    As far as other factors go, they all play an important role. But, I believe that we can counter act all other factors by determination and hard work.

    Anyways, appreciate the post, Catarina.

    My recent post SMB Blogging Contest: I’m Participating, Are You?

  22. Harrison Says:

    Too many people believe that the outcome of their success is due to some luck or fate intervention. This simply makes people passive on reaching for their success, and instead, these people are going to wait for "luck" that may never come. So better strategy is to take the initiative to put yourself out there in the world. To feel vulnerable, whether it be spilling your mind at the career fair, or traveling to a new place. Just putting yourself out there and taking risks will garner more success in the long run than simply believing that luck is all you have.
    My recent post How to Cross a Land Border in Central America

  23. Lubna Says:

    It is important to seize the moment. True leaders are those who are able to spot an opportunity, which seems like luck to many. There are yet others who do not see the opportunity. The distinction lies in the ability to see, what other's don't see. Insightful post as always.
    My recent post This Mobius Strip of Ifs

  24. catarinaalexon Says:

    True Jeannette, nothing beats hard work i.e. being prepared, trying out a new idea before you implement it and seizing the moment.

  25. catarinaalexon Says:

    Jeevan, from what you write it seems that you all in all agree with Hansen.

  26. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you Lubna. Good way of putting it.

  27. clairecappetta Says:

    I think it takes great dedication on the work you have chosen. The people I have been friends with who developed multimillion companies and ideas did two things:
    Failed several times before finding what they were good at… and
    Devoted all hours to making it work when they found it.
    Having talked to these people if you were to ask them if it was pure luck or indeed if they classed themselves as 'lucky' they would be mortified because it detracts all that they gave up and their hard work to be 'lucky'

  28. catarinaalexon Says:

    Exactly Claire. They are 100% committed to what they are doing and almost work 24/7. When I hear people saying "he was just lucky" it really annoys me and your friends have a right to feel mortified when someone considers themselves lucky. We all create our own luck and it's hard work:-)

  29. findingourwaynow Says:

    I do agree with his assessment. The example of Warren Buffet is very apt. It isn't luck but what you do with the cards you are dealt that matters the most. The fact that we all make mistakes means that we have to anticipate and be prepared for whatever comes. The ones who can do that and seize the opportunity that each presents are great leasers indeed.
    My recent post SeaGlass Riesling: Wine

  30. akandrewwriter Says:

    I think that seizing the opportunity at the right time is essential but true leaders are those who can perceive the opportunity is there to be seized. Others , like Steve Jobs create the opportunity. Creating a niche market is so much more creative than just filling a void. Luck has a small part to play buy hard work counts for an awful lot.
    Good thought provoking post Catarina.

  31. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me Susan. What you say is very much to the point.

  32. catarinaalexon Says:

    True AK. It's essential to both seize the moment and create your own luck.

  33. Roy Sangster Says:

    I don't think it is luck that people succeed, it usually takes seeing an opportunity and not being scared to do it. Most do not want to fail so don't try

  34. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree that it isn't "luck" that makes us succeed, Roy. If it was we could just sit down and wait for" luck" to come to us.:-). Do you agree with what professor Hansen outline as the traits needed to be really successful?

  35. Roy Says:

    It might work for some and not for others. I built my business over the years by determination that I could succeed and worked at it until it was a success. I then went on to build other businesses with the same determination not to fail. (I guess I am stubborn) I don't think a business should fail if you really look at what is needed and I have stated that to many business people but I sometimes get a negative response but the real success stories, know what I am talking about because they have been there and weren't doing it according to what a survey says, etc.

  36. catarinaalexon Says:

    OK Roy, so you succeeded without being prepared for the nightmare scenario, not seizing the opportunity when it comes and not trying out a new idea before going on with it. Well done!

  37. keepupweb Says:

    I don't believe luck has anything to do with being successful. I do believe that timing is critical but it comes down to being prepared. Smart business leaders like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are constantly strategizing and planing for the "what-ifs".
    My recent post Can Your Small Business Compete with the Big-Box Stores?

  38. catarinaalexon Says:

    True Sherryl, if we wait for luck to make us successful, we will definitely fail. Most of the traits outlined by Hansen I have. For instance always try to be prepared for the worst that I think could happen. Catch is it's impossible not only for me but for Buffett and Gates as well. For instance who would have imagined the impact of Lehman collapsing? Correction, Buffett actually did and tried to convince the Fed to save it because he understood the domino effect that would follow. But they didn't listen and neither did the Bush White house and administration. Pity Buffett wasn't in charge of the Fed since the world would have been a better place right now if he had been.

  39. Doreen Pendgracs Says:

    Hi Catarina: I think that a blend of luck, determination, hard work, a clear vision and the ability to collaborate effectively are the recipe for success. No matter what our dream is, if we "can't play well with other" and forge effectively relationships, I don't believe we will succeed.

    I therefore am a huge believer in networking.
    My recent post why PWAC inspires me

  40. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you for letting us know your definition of leadership Doreen. However it's such a huge subject this article merely looks at the characteristics of leaders that make their organisations thrive in times of chaos and uncertainty. Do you agree with the findings of professor Hansen's study when it comes to that aspect of leadership?

  41. Doreen Pendgracs Says:

    I can't say that they resonated with me. I just watched the video now. (I'm one of those people who doesn't enjoy having to watch a video in order to respond to a post.)
    My recent post guest post by Jim Kukral: use crowdsourcing to fund your next creative project

  42. macman Says:

    If one is driven by passion then I think it can make a great difference that could bring a great change in one's own leadership skills.
    My recent post How To Increase User Engagement on Your Blog ?

  43. catarinaalexon Says:


  44. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad we agree Harrison.

  45. catarinaalexon Says:

    True, Macman. Passion is what it's all about.

  46. jacquiegum Says:

    One thing that spoke to me in the video was that his opinion that even visionaries do not all succeed…different way about leadership and how these successful people bet on the strategy that showed the best chance of succeeding. So good and bad luck were often equal but had higher returns based on possible bad consequences AND seizing the moment when you see good things coming. Sort of makes you re-think the visionary model, yes?
    My recent post Time…Where’s The Justice?

  47. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree, Jacqueline.

  48. Susan P Cooper Says:

    I very much agree with this assessment. There is a quote from Tomas Jefferson that says "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seemed to have." That is really what great leaders already know. Reality is, we all make mistakes. When we do that means we have to learn from, anticipate and be prepared for whatever comes from them. The ones who do that can move the world. Just my thoughts. :-)
    My recent post Homemade S’mores: #Recipe

  49. patweber Says:

    I'm not sure it's really luck. More of the steps outlined in the video of what to do when what seems like an opportunity is in front of you. My guess is, once that moment is seized, then the other factors Hansen spoke to, fanatic discipline and empirical creativity, went full speed ahead.
    My recent post Top BS Facts about Introvert Experiences You Might Think Are True

  50. Tim Says:

    I completely agree. Good luck, bad luck, everyone has a mixture of both. Mitigating losses and extending gains is the key. Not unlike investing (gambling) on the stock market.

  51. Beth Niebuhr Says:

    I don’t think that great leaders are just lucky but that they keep their eyes open all the time. They think about what might happen and have back up plans. Because they are so alert, they recognize new solid opportunities, check them out, test them and validate them and then go forward with them. That’s not just luck although onlookers may think that it is. It’s focus.

  52. catarinaalexon Says:

    Susan, the quote from Tomas Jefferson is spot on. And to be prepared for the worst, like Bill Gates, is important.

  53. catarinaalexon Says:

    Don't we create our own luck, Pat, by doing what you state?

  54. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree, Tim. If "luck" existed all we had to do was sit down and wait for it to happen. We "create" our own luck.

  55. catarinaalexon Says:

    Exactly, Beth. People who want to believe it's luck are just envious.

  56. yearwoodcom Says:

    Catarina I have seen people handed every possible opportunity they could wish for and still make nothing of it. While others have encountered and overcome numerous roadblocks. Leadership is definitely NOT about luck.
    My recent post The beauty of plain

  57. catarinaalexon Says:

    Exactly, Debra. It's interesting to see what people answer to this question. One guy on Google + wrote that it is luck:-)

  58. William Rusho Says:

    I disagree with the statement, I think luck is everything. I know we look at Bill Gates and think about him as successful, but, how about before his success? Did Gates pray and say “I just need a break” early in his career. How many Bill Gates had better ideas and plans that never got their break. Timing is part of luck, how many Bill Gates had lived over the generations before the computer was invented?

    I think our big break is based on luck. Once you receive your break, it is easier to be successful, once you are successful.

  59. Ken Dowell Says:

    I agree that Luck has little to do with it but sometimes timing is everything. I know more than one CEO who was considered very successful but whose success had less to do with strategy and decision making than it had to do with a booming economy.

  60. catarinaalexon Says:

    OK William we take note that you believe success is based on luck.

  61. catarinaalexon Says:

    That's true, Ken. But did those CEO's really sit and wait for luck to strike?

  62. Arleen Says:

    Success has nothing to do with luck. How you handle the situation whether you make mistakes or have hurdles being prepared. With that said we can't always predict what will happen but if you think luck will make it work, then that is living in dream land. I admire Buffett not only because of his wealth but he has great intuition.
    My recent post More Time Spent on Cell Phones Equals More Mobile Advertising

  63. William Butler Says:

    Hi Catarina,
    This video reminds me of the Boy Scouts motto, "Be prepared." Obviously the risk:reward ratio is one of the dynamics involved, but the recognition and capitalization of opportunities is also a factor.

    My recent post Numbers, Large and Small, and the Secret of Life

  64. Ken Dowell Says:

    I'm thinking of the mid to late 90's when in many businesses you didn't have to do much more than answer the phone to show double-digit growth. CEO's who assumed office during that era stood a pretty good chance of looking like a success. Conversely, some pretty talented CEO's didn't survive the recession of 2007-09 despite being quite good leaders.

  65. jankedonna Says:

    I think a lot of what we call luck is the result of hard work, the wisdom to recognize opportunities, and the courage to seize them

  66. patweber Says:

    If we call serendipity or synchronicity luck, then when we are at least open to opportunities, they might just visit us!
    My recent post Top BS Facts about Introvert Experiences You Might Think Are True

  67. MinaJoshi Says:

    I think good luck comes to people like Bill Gates because of thier hard workbut most importantly by following their instincts. Sometimes you need to take the gamble to succeed.

  68. catarinaalexon Says:

    They had a business idea that was what the market wanted even in the 90s. Have worked with businesses all over the world since the 80s and unfortunately none of them just answered the phone to succeed. Truly wish it was that simple:-)

  69. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad we agree, Arleen. Find it interesting how envious people want to believe someone who succeeds was simply lucky.

  70. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes you have to be prepared and know what to do if disaster strikes, William.

  71. catarinaalexon Says:

    Absolutely, Donna. That's definitely the case. We create our own luck.

  72. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes Pat, for some reason when we really want something and concentrate hard on it, it happens. If that's luck it's, from what I understand, all about everything in the universe being energy, even thougths. In other words we send out energy in the universe that manifests

  73. catarinaalexon Says:

    Absolutely, Mina.

  74. patweber Says:

    Absolutely Catarina. And the more we attract, the more in the flow we are and — what we want shows up.
    My recent post Top BS Facts about Introvert Experiences You Might Think Are True

  75. JeriWB Says:

    Well practically every high school student in America thinks they’re going to be the next Bill Gates because they believe luck and sheer talent will see them through. Hard work and perseverance matter for so much, but I also like how you point out that many leaders like Buffet make safe bets.

  76. catarinaalexon Says:

    Great point about how the majority of high school students in the US think they will be the new Bill Gates. Wish it was that simple:-)

  77. michelelobosco Says:

    I think success is a finely tuned dance of a multitude of factors. Most hugely successful people have probably had their share of luck but I think we all have our share of luck, and that the people who become successful possess additional characteristics that allow them to take that luck to the next level. Thanks for a great read.

  78. Lorraine Reguly Says:

    Yes, I seize the moment and have also been considered a great leader. It's not always feasible to sit back and simply watch others succeed. Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and create your own success!

  79. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you are considered a great leader, Lorraine.

  80. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me, Michele!

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