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24 October 2009

The Harder I Work the Luckier I Get

Tag(s): Leadership & Management

BLOG No. 13                 

As this is my 13th Blog I thought I’d address the subject of Luck. I recently had the pleasure to witness my daughter receiving her Master’s Degree from University College, London, recently assessed the fourth best University in the world. Professor G David Price, Vice-Provost (research) gave an excellent address and among a series of pertinent quotations he attributed “The harder I work, the luckier I get” to Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of The Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States of America.

“Hold on!” I thought, “That was Gary Player, the golfer.” Or perhaps he put it slightly differently, “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” And so I did some research and found that it was probably neither of them. Among the politicians we can go back to Benjamin Franklin, a fellow Founding Father to Thomas Jefferson, but some 37 years senior. He is quoted as saying “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” About 100 years later Mark Twain is supposed to have coined the phrase but I think Americans attribute everything to Mark Twain when they’re not sure of the derivation.

Among the golfers there is evidence that Gary Player‘s contemporaries Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus both said it but they were preceded by an equally great golfer, Ben Hogan, who lays claim as the first golfer to publically use the phrase.
In the film industry it is attributed to Sam Goldwyn but it does not seem to fit with his wonderful malapropisms.
I think it likely that it is just an aphorism, a proverb if you like, that has been polished over time and provides a useful riposte to the unfair accusation of luck when the reward of high office or sporting success has been won by fair endeavour.

But there is a role for luck. Earlier this year I attended the Completion event of the Student Leadership Programme, a new initiative from Youth at Risk which has taken the charity into universities for the first time. The University of Bedfordshire, of which I am an independent Governor, was one of three universities to participate in a programme involving 100 business-based Performance coaches, 45 university staff and over 200 students developing leadership skills, improving attainment, raising aspirations and enhancing social cohesion on campus and beyond. The completion evening was an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of participating students and hear directly from them about how they have used their experience on this programme to impact on their own lives and the lives of others within their community.

The principal speaker was the Rt. Hon. the Lord Judge, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. (Great name for a Judge!) Lord Judge gave a superb address, right on the money, in which he acknowledged the role of luck in terms of life chances. Judges are often accused of being out of touch, he said, which for him was ironic because judges heard everyday the most dreadful stories from which ordinary members of the public are protected.

So luck means different things at different times. There is the chance role of the dice, the unfortunate bounce of a ball, and the lottery ticket of life. There is also the chance to make the most of our chances.

Napoleon Bonaparte, when told the virtues of a new candidate for promotion to the rank of General, e.g. the man's brilliance, bravery, skill in battle and so on - waved his hand impatiently. "That's all very well," he said, "but is he lucky?"
Napoleon regarded luck as a personal attribute rather than a matter of chance. A lucky person would always win out over adverse circumstances, he believed, whereas an unlucky person - even a general who was expert in the techniques of war - was fated to meet with failure and disaster on the battlefield. But, of course, Napoleon’s own luck ran out at Waterloo where, with the help of the weather and a timely arrival by the 72 –year old Prince von Blücher, the Duke of Wellington, who was both brilliant and lucky, beat him once and for all. Wellington had the grace to say later “It was a damned close run thing.”

There’s a famous scene in Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan is having breakfast in a café when a bank robbery breaks out. Looking like he just took his poncho off from the spaghetti westerns in which he made his name, still chewing his breakfast, he breaks up the robbery with a few well chosen shots leaving absolute mayhem. There is one surviving bank robber wounded and lying inches from his own shotgun.
Callahan says “I know what you're thinking.”Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk? “
Callahan picks up the gun and walks away. The bank robber calls after him
Hey. I gots to know.”
Incredibly Callahan fires the gun at the robber who then finds out how many shots Callahan had already fired.

Perhaps Seneca put it best in the 1st Century AD when he said “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved





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