Jo Owen 5 Jun 2018 03:33pm

Leadership: making your own luck

Most leaders will confess that they got lucky in their careers. But can you leave good fortune to chance, or is it possible to make your own luck?

If you suspect luck is not random, you are right. So here is your guide to becoming the luckiest person in your firm. The essence of becoming lucky is the three Ps: practice, persistence and perspective.


Arnold Palmer, the legendary golfer, is reputed to have said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” He had a point. The putt with a 5% chance becomes a 10% chance with a little practice, 20% with more practice and 80% with 20 years of practice. So is the successful putt a lucky putt or a skilled putt?

To become good at anything requires huge amounts of practice and experience – 10,000 hours is often quoted as the amount of practice needed to achieve mastery. I doubt this. When I started jogging I was rubbish; 9,500 hours later I am even worse. I will not make the Olympics with another 500 hours of jogging. So your practice has to be purposeful and directed. And to sustain that level of commitment, you have to enjoy what you do. Ultimately, you only excel at what you enjoy.


This comes in two flavours. One is sheer endurance. The second is the ability to bounce back from adversity.

Endurance matters personally and professionally. In one well known study of luck, later published as The Luck Factor, Professor Richard Wiseman discovered an extremely lucky woman. She was always winning cash, holidays, cruises and cars. She didn’t even drive. The secret of her success soon became clear: she entered over 100 competitions a week. She simply kept going. Persistence reinforces practice. Over time she became good at tie breakers that ask you to say why you like Miracle Sudso.

Professionally, the difference between success and failure is as simple as giving up. You can find plenty of highly talented people who move sideways and out. Some are ground down by decades of slog; others hit a major bump in their careers and do not bounce back. That leaves the way for potentially less talented but more persistent individuals to rise to the top.

We all face crises in our careers. Crises can make you or break you.

Paraphrasing Nietzsche: “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.” To survive you need a network of support and you need the right attitude. A core value of the Royal Marines is “humour in the face of adversity”, which is a cue for unprintable jokes. If they can laugh in the face of death, we can laugh at the trivial absurdity of most professional crises. And the most powerful lessons we learn in life are from setbacks.


This also comes in two flavours. First, you are as lucky as you feel. Think about all the rubbish things that happened today; bad news on the radio; commuter irritations; annoying emails and colleagues. Soon you will feel rubbish and unlucky.

So do the alternative exercise: what are all the good things that happened today? After one hard research trip I found myself back in civilisation: a hotel with a corrugated iron roof, barbed wire fence and filthy bed. Next morning I woke up to two miracles: I went to the bathroom, turned on a tap and cold water came out. I did not need to walk three miles to a crocodile-infested river to fetch some water. Next, I turned on another tap and warm water came out: no need to collect firewood. So I now woke up to two miracles every morning, and it is hard to have a bad day. We are surrounded by everyday miracles of good water, electricity, transport, medicine, dentistry and law and order. Count your blessings.

The second part of perspective is to be able to spot the opportunities that surround us, and to have the courage to act on them. In every firm there are endless moments of crisis and ambiguity, there are new ideas that need developing. These are the moments when leaders step up and followers step back. The followers’ perspective is to see risk where the leader sees opportunity. You don’t win the raffle unless you buy a ticket.

Be bold and seize the moment (perspective); the more often you do so (persistence) the better you will become (practice) and the luckier you will seem to be. Others will call you lucky; you will be smart enough to agree and quietly smile at the way you always make yourself so lucky.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)