Guest AuthorMarshall Goldsmith

The Success Delusion

By Marshall Goldsmith

Any human, in fact, any animal will tend to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more successful we become, the more positive reinforcement we get – and the more likely we are to experience the success delusion.

I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.


The higher we move up the organizational ladder, the more our employees let us know how wonderful we are! Our behavior is often followed by positive reinforcement, even when this behavior makes absolutely no sense. One night over dinner, I listened as a very wise military leader shared his learnings from years of experience with an eager, newly-minted General, “Recently, have you started to notice that when you tell jokes, everyone erupts into laughter – and that when you say something ‘wise’ everyone nods their heads in solemn agreement? The new General replied, “Why, yes, I have.” The older General laughed and continued, “Let me help you. You aren’t that funny, and you aren’t that smart! It’s only that star on your shoulder. Don’t ever let it go to your head.”

We all want to hear what we want to hear. We want to believe those great things that the world is telling us about ourselves. Our belief in ourselves helps us become successful. It can also make it very hard for us to change. As the wise older General noted – we aren’t really that funny, and we aren’t really that smart. We can all get better – if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves. By understanding why changing behavior can be so difficult for successful leaders – we can increase the likelihood of making the changes that we need to make – in our quest to become even more successful.

Why We Resist Change

UNUM, the insurance company, ran an ad some years ago showing a powerful grizzly in the middle of a roaring stream, with his neck extended to the limit, jaws wide open and teeth flaring. The bear was about to clamp on an unsuspecting salmon jumping up stream. The headline read: YOU PROBABLY FEEL LIKE THE BEAR, WE’D LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT YOU ARE THE SALMON.

The ad was designed to sell disability insurance, but it struck me as a powerful statement about how we all delude ourselves about our achievements, our status and our contributions. We often:

• Overestimate our contribution to a project;
• Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and standing among our peers;
• Exaggerate our project’s impact on profitability by discounting real and hidden costs.

Many of our delusions can come from our association with success, not failure. Since we get positive reinforcement from our past successes, we think that they are predictive of great things to come in our future.

The fact that successful people tend to be delusional isn’t all bad. Our belief in our wonderfulness gives us confidence. Even though we are not as good as we think we are, this confidence actually helps us be better than we would become if we did not believe in ourselves. The most realistic people in the world are not delusional – they are depressed!

Although our self-confident delusions can help us achieve, they can make it difficult for us to change. In fact, when others suggest that we may need to change, we may view them with unadulterated bafflement.

It’s an interesting three-part response. First we are convinced that the other party is confused. They are misinformed, and they just don’t know what they are talking about. They must have us mixed up with someone who truly does need to change. Second, as it dawns upon us that the other party is not confused – maybe their information about our perceived shortcomings is accurate – we go into denial mode. This criticism may be correct, but it can’t be that important – or else we wouldn’t be so successful. Finally, when all else fails, we may attack the other party. We discredit the messenger. “Why is a winner like me,” we conclude, “listening to a loser like you?”

These are just a few of our initial responses to what we don’t want to hear – denial mechanisms. Couple this with the very positive interpretation that successful people assign to (a) their past performance, (b) their ability to influence their success (as opposed to just being lucky), (c) their optimistic belief that their success will continue in the future, and (d) their over-stated sense of control over their own destiny (as opposed to being controlled by external forces), and you have a volatile cocktail of resistance to change.

Our positive beliefs about ourselves help us become successful. These same beliefs can make it tough for us to change. The same beliefs that helped us get to here – our current level of success, can inhibit us from making the changes needed to get to there – the next level that we have the potential to reach .

Read On…

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