Then the Gods Gave me Pride
By the time that Alexander the Great’s armies had conquered most of the known world, it had become much harder to get the men to fight — even for one of the most talented and inspiring leaders that has ever lived. Brought up in the world’s leading martial culture, and having just conquered the rest of Greece under King Philip of Macedon, Alexander’s father, the soldiers were trained in the coordinated use of the giant pike sarissas, better battle organization and physical preparation, and possessed the unbridled spirit of free men. Their talent and advantages allowed them to sweep out of Greece and to cut through the Persian Empire and then anybody else in their path — whether they were liberating or enslaving is a matter of debate, but they believed they were liberators, as did Livy 300 years later. Only men inspired by a higher cause could have achieved so much.
But they were weighed down by their enormous success — proud officers soon squabbled and began to kill each other, and maneuvered for position. Trouble in the ranks began to occupy more and more of Alexander’s time. Not only the officers but the soldiers had become kings in their own right — their unprecedented success had brought even the lowliest Greek soldier hairdressers, weapons handlers, concubines, and other luxuries, and all the wealth they would ever need. It’s no wonder that the army rebelled against Alexander as he attempted to cross further into India, and forced him to turn back. They had had enough success, and the success had turned on itself. They had become too important to risk their own lives, or to suffer the outrageous indignities of a fierce battle.
Alexander the Great’s case is an extreme one, but our own Alexander and his officers are about to face the myriad problems of the early stages of success, and self-awareness and heading these issues off before and as they arise will be critical to taking what is currently an impressive start and pushing it squarely into the realms of glory that we are capable of achieving.
The Greeks had a saying — that the gods did not like men to think they were more than men, so when men started to succeed, the gods would send them pride, which would cause them to fail and to remain mortal. This failure would not be the fault of the great man — at some point, men are supposedly unable to resist pride, and the gods are always able to smash them down.
Pride comes in many forms and is expressed in a lot of ways. One common form of pride is the conviction that the rest of the world is incompetent and that only your way of doing things works, or only your unique skills are truly relevant.
At a hedge fund, for instance, one can imagine a successful group of traders who see the world from their own perspective having profited greatly from this for several years. Pride would quickly lead them to believe that most other people are unenlightened and are operating in a context that is virtually worthless by comparison. In a more extreme scenario, they might come to believe that virtually every other form of trading or even of making money in finance is stupid or worthless by comparison; as the pride becomes more extreme, virtually everything else becomes worthless by comparison and they begin to stop challenging their assumptions.
In a technology group, the pride of success leads insiders to believe that virtually every other technology in the space is worthless by comparison. This attitude slowly discourages questioning and challenging the internal technological processes and methodologies, and above all discourages questioning the basic assumptions and the framework of the approach. Although the initial assumption of massive superiority may be true at a given point in time, the attitude tends to stick, and long after a large government organization or corporation is no longer the best, it will continue to believe it is, and it will ignore outside technology, eventually to its massive detriment.
In a sales organization, pride is at least as great a threat as anywhere else. The sale closer is the rainman, and nothing would function without him, and everything he did to make it work was a stroke of unique genius and subtlety, much of it beyond the appreciation of the unwashed masses. Success further confirms the bias that other methodologies are naive, and probably useless. Everything else becomes useless other than the mantras and processes that have worked to date. A great salesman is an extremely valuable person, and a great sales manager is even more important. But in reality, depending on a variety of factors, sales could often have worked through any number of channels and methods, and are only one part of the business. But it is rare for the gods to allow the successful salesman to maintain perspective in the dizzying face of success. The flexibility, optionality, and 20,000 foot viewpoints that are vital to stop and consult along the way in tandem with the successful and disciplined sales methods are often pushed to the wayside, and other parts of the organization can easily become undervalued.
Meanwhile, it is easy to too quickly dismiss outsiders with different sales tactics that have proven successful in their own right but do not conform with the currently successful practices of the existing organization. Partners or new channels are discounted. “That is worthless” because it didn’t come from me becomes the default response, if not verbally then intellectually. In the face of massive success, anything a salesman is doing must be genius, and success will instinctively reinforce his idea that everybody else is a waste of time and that his methods are the best. It’s easy to apply this to mean that you should ignore everybody and everything else — especially if the success is continuing as you start to do this. But only by constantly learning and constantly challenging its assumptions can a sales organization achieve its full potential, just like any other human endeavor.
In a company that has an SV startup culture, success brings other challenges, and the introduction of liquidity is very dangerous — just as the introduction of riches to Alexander’s troops distracted them, so did it distract Google employees who became famous for “calling in rich.” A company must have a strong, spartan culture (all necessities and comforts provided by the organization and a devotion to the collective), especially during periods of rapid growth, if it is to survive the perils of liquidity. Meanwhile, cultural values are created and reinforced by the leaders. Alexander the Great kept discipline as long as possible by shaping and living his own life around his mission and his quest for glory, and his men knew it wasn’t just an act, it was truly his passion. He also made an effort to continue to shower generosity on his troops, not as a celebration of luxury, but as a celebration of their achievements and their dedication, with personalized gifts that may have been valuable in their own right but whose chief value came as recognition of their mutual dedication and respect. It was clear that he cared about what everybody was working on and about winning, not about enjoying the riches of achievement.
The leaders of the company should be on the same page about what they’re focused on and how their lifestyles and even the leisure activities that people know about reflect their values to the rest of the company. This is something they can help each other with. Especially as higher-ranked officers first begin to enjoy their success, it is easy to unwittingly take actions that suggest that success is something to be distracted by, or that engage in cultures such as New York models and parties, actions that are a bad influence on the mimetic desires of the troops and their shared focus on the mission.
Success tells you that everything about you and what you are doing must be great, and makes you less tolerant of negative feedback, less eager to search and improve yourself. But success comes from a myriad of inputs and has many more fathers than most realize — to continue to succeed you cannot take success personally. We are becoming more successful at our company, and the gods are already working on us. Of course they are, as we are human. But we can be orders of magnitude more successful than we are now — we should be. It will be a horrible failure if we are not. But if we do not constantly question ourselves and constantly recreate ourselves, if we do not tolerate other opinions and methods, if we do not catch ourselves when we look at how great we are and think that we deserve more respect, then the gods will succeed in tearing us down.
Pride costs us more than anything else and it is endemic to all of humanity. And success breeds a host of situations and influences that are mean-reverting, individually and culturally. As we begin to face off against true success, we must remain manically self-aware of its extraordinary challenge if we hope to continue to climb towards the gods.