The Dangers of Success

success aheadEvery leader hopes to be successful.  No leader or business sets out to fail.  Success, however carries with it at least six inherent dangers.  Harari (1993) confirms that “companies that were heroes yesterday are not necessarily heroes today…more than 40 percent of the 1980 Fortune 500 no longer even exist.”  It understandable when these companies failed due to poor management.  It is intriguing when successful companies fall into the success-to-failure life cycle.  History is a good predictor that today’s business success may be tomorrow’s business failure.  This is due to inattention to potentially dangerous byproducts of success. In my life and leadership, I have encountered each of these dangers.  Each of these dangers contrast the six elements of the continuous learning cycle.

Arrogance/Smugness. The first danger is an inward attitude of arrogance and smugness. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to believe that success is a static concept.  Upon achieving success and accomplishment, a leader may think he or she has arrived and can now rest.  Arrogance, the attitude that one knows it all is the opposite of humility. When I achieve success in one endeavor or at one level, I may let pride take a foothold.

Complacency. Once pride, arrogance or smugness begins to take root in my heart and character, the next danger of success is complacency.  I lose the hunger for continued learning.  I am no longer vigilant and aggressive to combat the dangerous attitudes.  I fail to heed the advice of the proverb to make my ear attentive to wisdom, incline my heart to understanding and seek wisdom like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures (Proverbs 2: 2-4). These first two dangers are inward attitude, heart or character related.

Failure to listen and learn. The third danger of success follows on the heels of the first two, and begins to affect my relationship with others. I fail to learn. This makes sense.  If I already know it all, what else is there to learn?  Failure to learn shows up in my relationships.  According to Harari (1993), the number one complaint heard from employees is that management does not listen. A successful leader can learn about a situation and arrive with the solution, but he or she will fail to learn from and learn with direct reports. He will fail to listen to others.  He may give mental assent to the idea, but then fail to act.  He has not listened fully with focused attention, for understanding or to learn at a deeper level. Elmer (2006) emphasizes the importance of learning from and learning with those whom we are serving as key, especially in cross cultural effectiveness.  Watkins (2003) also mentions learning from direct reports as a key strategy for effective leadership.

Teaching as “The Expert”. A fourth danger of success affects how I teach.  Once I feel like I know it all, I lose my hunger to learn, and fail to learn by listening to others, my teaching becomes the dialogue of an expert.  I do not practice what Palmer (2007) calls the interactive-community model of teaching, in which the teacher is a co-learner rather than the expert.  As a result, learning becomes one way—from the expert/teacher to the student/learner.

Leading from Power and Authority. The fifth danger is closely related to the fourth danger of success, since teaching and leading are so inextricably linked accordingly to Tichy (2002).  Success can cause me to lead from power and authority rather than as a servant leader.  Keith (2008) defines a servant-leader simply as a leader who is focused on serving others. A servant-leader loves people, and wants to help them. The mission of the servant-leader is therefore to identify and meet the needs of others (p. 9).

Failure to Receive Feedback. The sixth and final danger of success is failure to seek and receive feedback. Feedback communicates that I can continue to do better, to learn more and be more successful in the next endeavor.  Feedback leads me back to remaining humble, and begins the continuous learning cycle again.

Which byproduct of success is potentially most dangerous to you?

Related posts, if you are interested in this topic:



  1. Harari, O. (1993). The danger of success. Management Review, 82(7), 29. Retrieved from
  2. Elmer, D. (2006). Cross-cultural servanthood: Serving the world in Christ-like humility.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. Keith, K. (2008). The case for servant leadership. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
  4. Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  5. Tichy, Noel (2002). The leadership engine: How winning companies build leadership at every level.  New York: HarperCollins.
  6. Watkins, D. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

6 thoughts on “The Dangers of Success

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  1. Thank you for the excellent information! I believe these are all attitudes to be concerned about. However, many people fear success for these reasons, and never even get there. Instead, I find it best to be aware of these potential snags instead of creating a fear that will keep me from the very success I crave 🙂

    1. Hi Joe. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Yes, I agree with your point to be aware of potential snags, but we first have to get to success! I would agree that people sometimes fear success, as Marianne Williamson said (often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

  2. These apply unbelievably to ministry–no matter what level of leadership or follower you are. These attitudes you’ve shared can short-circuit any heart, undermine any good intention and begin the lies that eventually take us down. Thanks for sharing–these are great reminders of how I check my heart and mind!

    1. Hey Dayle-e-o. Thanks for your awesome comment. You are so encouraging. You are right—they do apply to ministry at any level. It really does boil down to the heart…and our relationship, doesn’t it?

  3. Hmm, all these books are on my living room shelf. Good thoughts and nice work tying them all together. I suspect that being in real community with others who are “successful” could help avoid and/or recover from these pitfalls.

    1. Yes, Amanda! Being in community can help avoid a lot of stuff! Your suspicions are right on. What kind of things have you found helpful to read the books you want to dive into?

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