Why do successful leaders find it so difficult to change?

by Narayan Kamath 3 minutes read

Successful people have strong beliefs about themselves. And while strong self-belief is a strength that empowers us toward achievement, it can also make it difficult for us to look objectively at ourselves and to change. Successful people are strongly motivated by past success. They believe, “I have succeeded, therefore I will succeed”. While this belief helps them face challenges confidently, it can also lead to their denying any need to change.

Successful people also have a strong belief in their capability to make desirable things happen. They believe “I can succeed, therefore I will succeed”. They are very confident that their personality, talent and intelligence can steer things in their favor. This belief gets reinforced with every achievement – until the leader starts believing that they are successful because of the way they behave Successful people are almost always optimists - they believe “I will succeed”. This is important – because thinking otherwise can be disempowering. However, this optimism can also make it very difficult for successful people to say “no” to opportunities, and they can find themselves drowning in a “sea of opportunities”. Often, this belief can also make leaders overcommit on behalf of their teams – leading to poor morale and increased stress within their teams.

Successful people have a high need for self-determination – the belief that they are doing what they choose to do, and that they are successful because they “choose to succeed”. This determination and commitment is a strength, since it helps them persevere and see things through when times are difficult. However, it can also make it difficult for them to stop doing something, even when it is not working! It is hard for winners to quit! Also, they have great distaste for being controlled or manipulated – so find it difficult to change, when they are “told” to do so.

These four beliefs, “I have succeeded – I can succeed – I will succeed – I choose to succeed”, working together create a delusion – the success delusion. And this delusion can sometimes make successful leaders repeat ineffective and dysfunctional behaviors – because they become superstitious. And they confuse being successful “despite the behavior” with being successful “because of the behavior”.

If you look hard at yourself, you might find certain quirks or unattractive behaviors. Let’s say you are told you should be “a better listener”. You know it annoys your friends, family or coworkers – yet you continue to behave that way because you tell yourself – “this is me. I have been successful because of who I am, and I cannot succeed if I stop being myself”. If you feel this way, it is very likely that you are suffering from the success delusion. Overcoming this delusion requires constant vigilance and asking oneself – “Is this behavior really contributing to my success or am I successful despite it?”

For a successful leader, the first step towards making positive changes in her life is to realize that it is hard for her to change, to acknowledge that some of her beliefs and behaviors may have outlived their utility.

The second step is to get into the habit of asking the key people in his life (stakeholders) – “How can I improve”?. For this to work, he needs to suspend judgment and the urge to defend himself, and accept that the stakeholder may be right about the need for change.

The successful leader needs to make peace with the fact that she will only change what she chooses to change; that the motivation and commitment to change has to come from within her. So, after gathering inputs from all key stakeholders, the leader has to decide what she will work on – changes that she believes will be right for herself and her organization.

Finally, the leader needs to watch out against over-commitment. It is better to pick one behavior to change and see it through.

What quirk or ineffectual behavior are you finding hard to stop?


The Success Delusion: Why It Can Be So Hard for Successful Leaders to Change. The Conference Board Review, Jan-Feb, 2007. By Marshall Goldsmith Stubborn by Anna-Eagle flickr.

Narayan Kamath

Narayan has over 26 years of functional and general management experience in small and large companies, leading small as well as large diverse teams. He has a rich and diverse experience of working and leading teams in a variety of functions including Business Development, Projects, Technology, Operations, HSE, Supply Chain and Engineering.


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