Are You Suffering From the Delusions of Success?


By Lisa Earle McLeod

How did you get where you are today?

Was it skill, luck, hard work? If you’re somewhat successful, it was probably all three. But what’s it going to take to get you to the next level? Will it be more of the same? Or could some of your perceived “strengths” be holding you back?

If you ask most successful people why they’ve succeeded, they’re likely to cite some of their positive character traits. For example, they might say, “I’m very detail-oriented,” or, “I really know how to take charge of a situation.” Or in my case, I would probably say something like, “I try to be helpful in every situation.”

But what if the very behaviors and traits to which we attribute our success are actually holding us back? What if we’ve been successful in spite of our habits, rather than because of them?

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that one of the problems with success is that it can delude you into overestimating your achievements, status and contributions. Goldsmith, ( who was named one of the five most respected executive coaches by Fortune, has surveyed more than 50,000 people in his training programs. He cites the “The Success Delusion” as the reason why 80 to 85 percent of people consistently rank themselves in the top 20 percent of their peer group, with 70 percent ranking themselves in the top 10.

Among the high-perceived status professionals, like doctors and senior executives, the numbers go even higher, with 90 percent placing themselves in the top 10. Sound like anyone you know?

The Success Delusion can work to our benefit when it gives us confidence. But in many cases, it prevents us from accurately assessing our weaknesses. In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith identifies 20 habits that hold people back. They’re not flaws of skill or intelligence, but rather challenges in interpersonal behavior.

Unfortunately, in many cases, we don’t even realize we have these habits, and sometimes, they’re the very things we take pride in. For example, Habit No. 1: Winning Too Much. On the surface, winning seems like a good thing. But if you’ve ever worked with someone who had to win at all costs, even when it doesn’t matter (like the three-legged race at the company picnic), you know how destructive it can be.

The problem is, the “winner” can’t see it. Enter Goldsmith who, as part of his executive coaching process, surveys coworkers to find out how they perceive the person in question. Imagine what happens when someone, let’s just say a person who writes a syndicated column and runs a consulting business and who prides herself on being helpful, discovers that she’s actually guilty of Habit No. 3: Adding Too Much Value. I’ll tell you what happens. She’s forced to face the fact that adding her two cents to every conversation frequently has a chilling effect on others.

Because when someone takes your idea and adds to it, it’s no longer your idea, and you’re no longer as excited about it as you once were. And if every single one of your direct reports (and your family) reads the book and says, “You totally do that,” same said person can no longer pretend she’s being helpful; she has to admit she’s just plain bossy, which means she’s going to have to change if she wants to get to the next level.

Self-knowledge is a ruthless teacher. But, heavy sigh, the only way to overcome your bad habits is to acknowledge them. Because the habits that got you here, won’t get you there.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. She is the President of McLeod & More, Inc., an international training firm specializing in sales, leadership, and customer/consumer engagement. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.”  Visit for a short video intro.

© Copyright 2009, by Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.