I have recently come across a couple of references to the role of luck in leadership in two different books. I found this to be very interesting, because it seemed that both authors promoted leadership strategy and intentional behaviors, but couldn’t explain “unexplainable events,” and so relegated these events to the category of luck. As a Christian who strongly believes in the teachings of the Bible, this prompted me to think about the role that luck plays in the Christian worldview, considering the Bible’s teaching on providence (as opposed to chance).
The first reference that I read was in Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book on behavioral psychology applied to economics and business, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). In this book, Kahneman seemed to give a high amount of credence to luck and its role in organizational and individual success, and specifically stated that “luck often contributes to success.” (p. 177) He went on to say, “Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. . . Because luck plays a large role, the quality of leadership and management practices cannot be inferred reliably from observations of success.” (p. 207) Then he applied this view to the other author I had read that referenced luck when he said, “The basic message of Built to Last [Collins] and other similar books is that good managerial practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded by good results. Both messages are overstated. The comparison of firms that have been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison between firms that have been more or less lucky.” (p. 207)
Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011) – which I recently summarized in another post – also addressed the role of luck, seeking to understand how luck impacts leadership. He couched it in the context of the premise of this book and said, “The very nature of this study – thriving in uncertainty, leading in chaos, dealing with a world full of big disruptive forces that we cannot predict or control – led us to the fascinating question, ‘Just what is the role of luck?’” (p. 153) He assumes that luck happens with and to everyone, and so he then focused on what he calls ROL, or Return on Luck. His research concluded “that the 10X cases were not generally luckier than the comparison cases. The 10X cases and comparisons both got luck, good and bad, in comparable amounts. The evidence leads us to conclude that luck does not cause 10X success. People do. The critical question is not ‘Are you lucky?’ but ‘Do you get a high return on luck?’” (p. 160)
As I processed these thoughts on luck, I was reminded of a similar concept in a book I read several years ago called Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret Wheatley. Wheatley described the idea of chaos theory in science, and explained that “a system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know what it will do next. The system never behaves in the same way twice.” (p. 22) But then she made what I thought was a very interesting and important observation, as she went on to say, “but as chaos theory shows, if we look at such a system over time, it demonstrates an inherent orderliness.” (p. 22) She went on to describe, in further discussing quantum physics, that “at a level we can’t discern, there is an unbroken wholeness. If we could look beneath the surface, we would observe an ‘implicate order’ out of which seemingly discrete events arise.” (p. 43) Her conclusion, which she applied to leadership, stated, “When we concentrate on individual moments or fragments of experience, we see only chaos. But if we stand back and look at what is taking shape, we see order. Order always displays itself as patterns that develop over time.” (p. 118)
I saw this as a clear illustration of the concept of the sovereignty of God. The Bible specifically – and in a number of places – implies, infers, and directly states that God, who is sovereign, has a perfect plan, and that nothing happens outside of His knowledge and permission, if not direct control. The result is that there is a purpose and order underlying apparent chance and disorder. What appears to be chance (or perhaps luck) is actually something that is part of a greater pattern and plan. And don’t misinterpret me here, because this does not preclude the importance of planning, strategizing, and seeking counsel (as stated in Proverbs 20:18 and Proverbs 21:5). Three verses in Proverbs seemed to me to communicate both sides of this concept – that we are to plan, but that God directs the outcome; this is seen in comparing the first and second half of each of these verses:
Prov. 16:9 – A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.
Prov. 16:33 – The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.
Prov. 21:31 – The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord
So when the concept of luck, chance, and chaos is filtered through a Christian worldview, we know that we make plans, but we also recognize that things will happen outside of our control; sometimes perceived as good luck and sometimes as perceived as bad luck. However, if we can view these events through the lens of God’s sovereignty, we can also recognize that God is in control and can trust His underlying order rather than relying on luck. We still do our part – develop a vision and a strategy, make preparations, implement policy and procedure, learn from others, and so on – but we don’t let “luck” discourage or define us, because we can (as Jim Collins also says in Great by Choice) “zoom out” and see the bigger picture and trust God’s providence to have a greater purpose. It is when we can respond to these circumstances in this way, learning and growing from them instead of panicking, dismissing, or reacting negatively, that we can have the most beneficial “return on luck.”.
Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.