Hubris: How the Mighty Fall
In his book, How The Mighty Fall, Jim Collins describes the Five Stages of Decline that once-mighty companies go through on their way out of business. Stage 1 is “Hubris born of success.” Collins’ research team observed that “Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success—and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities—have succumbed to hubris.”
Collins’ research strongly suggests that the end of a great business begins when its leaders become overly full of themselves. While the road to humility is paved with humiliation, the road to hubris is adorned with palm branches, confetti born of press clippings and starry-eyed sycophants. Trips down this corporate version of Wisteria Lane (think Desperate Housewives) often end badly for both the businesses and their leaders who take them there (think Merrill Lynch).
I’m certainly no former mighty, now fallen titan of business. Our humble company was far from making Collins’ research list, and Jim didn’t ask me which companies should be on it. However, I think all business leaders (all leaders, for that matter) should pay close attention to both sides of the success coin. Most exhaust themselves getting their companies from survival to good, to great, while ignoring the telltale signs that a company could be headed the other way. As I ponder telltale sign #1 (hubris), the loud voice of my former boss still rings in my ears.
You’ll hear later about how I went from hero to goat in my former job and was subsequently fired. In a meeting with my boss just a few weeks prior to that, he got very exasperated with me. The question he asked me at the height of our emotional exchange—Why are you so damned arrogant?—is one I’ve asked myself many times since. The seeds of hubris are apparently planted deep within my seemingly humble heart. It never ceases to amaze me how a little taste of success can find me strutting around our office like the only rooster in the barnyard.
Mind you, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Like Babe Ruth before them, every true sales guy knows that strike-outs are prerequisite to home runs…and more plentiful. So, celebrating the singles in between is appropriate and healthy. But, when we celebrate the singles as if they are home runs, we realize that hubris can spring up like a weed at any time, choking the life out of our team.
From the diamond to the gridiron, consider who’s lined up on the other side of the ball when our foolish pride finds its way into the playbook:
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Pride is like calling an end-run around the God of the Universe—a play that will not likely end well. Humility, however, is like calling a “flea flicker” while telegraphing the play to the opposing defensive captain (a.k.a. God of the Universe). He then directs all of the defenders to gang tackle the halfback just after he’s lateralled back to the quarterback. With no defenders near him, the humble QB has all the time he needs to throw a perfect pass to the wide-open receiver for the game-winning touchdown. And the crowd went wild!
That, football fans, is grace in action. And that is something truly worth celebrating. Who wants to join me in the “Super Bowl Shuffle”?
Why is pride a problem? Because it puts you and God on opposing sides. Humility, however, puts you in position to receive much more than you could ever deserve. That’s called grace. Without grace in large daily dose, you’re toast.
Understanding this in the depths of his soul, the late Brennan Manning chose to entitle his last book, All Is Grace. Manning was a passionate Christ follower who struggled with alcoholism his entire life. The central theme of his preaching and writings was simply that God loves us just as we are…not as we’re supposed to be. I’ve come to believe that there’s more life-transforming power in this single truth than perhaps any other. With it, Manning hit the nail on the head…the one that pierced the Savior of the world. My favorite of Manning’s books is Ruthless Trust.
Sidebar: Hubris on the Gridiron
A current sports example of hubris that annoys the tar out of me is when NFL football players celebrate their every move as if they’d just won the Super Bowl. Why would a defender whose team is down by three touchdowns late in the fourth quarter celebrate a tackle as if it was a game changer? And why does his coach put up with such self-centered nonsense? I’m all for celebrating points on the board and the occasional spectacular play, but when nearly every play ends with one or more players strutting around like peacocks on the prowl, it detracts from the game. At least it does for me.