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How Do You Measure Success?

One of my top-ten favorite leadership insights comes from the line in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby quotes his highly dysfunctional father’s counsel, “Son, if you’re not first, you’re last.” At an early age Ricky grabs onto this credo and lives it to the fullest, making winning a habit… until he stops winning… and his career and relationships go down in flames. It’s not until everyone has abandoned him that he hits rock bottom and corrects his thinking.

It is another conversation after his devastating fall, with his now sober father, that helps Ricky see the light. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember the scene where he reminds his father about the advice he gave him. His father’s shocked response is priceless, “Son, what in the world are you talking about? That doesn’t even make sense! There’s first, there’s second, there’s third!” It is a funny scene, but what makes it funny is many of us can relate to living our life based on a faulty standard only to wake up and realize we are looking at it all wrong.

So how do you measure success? It is not a trivial question and one every leader and parent should reflect upon. How we measure success drives everything else—our priorities, how we accomplish those priorities, and how we treat others along the way.

To test this out I frequently ask managers to tell me about their KPI’s (key performance indicators) at work. The answers come quick, and they’ll rattle off several metrics related to operational efficiency, revenue growth, safety, and quality. Next, I’ll ask the same group how it would change behavior if I removed one of their KPI’s.

After pondering the question, their responses are almost always the same—they admit that over time they would stop making that area a top priority. The reason is there are always inherent conflicts between our success metrics. Short-term goals are frequently in conflict with long-term objectives, high quality standards may come at the cost of short-term productivity, building a strong team may come at the expense of short-term efficiency, etc. When we give up one, our natural tendency is to drive even harder to achieve the other.

The reality is we are all driven by how we keep score at work and in life. This is especially true for leaders and parents. When we emphasize short-term performance over character and personal development, we should not be surprised at the results—lots of trophies and awards but nothing of significance to leave behind—a legacy of dysfunctional teams and kids who will struggle to find true success and happiness in life.


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