The real reason why organizations (and people) fail to succeed

Organizations fail to succeed because they haven’t defined success.

Defining organizational successI don’t mean they’ve failed to set goals or have no vision of what they want to accomplish.

I mean they haven’t defined success as a concept in and of itself.

And it’s a tremendously loaded concept.

The problem with the concept of success

We all have psychological and emotional baggage around the idea of success. Whether it was a parent’s demand that we study medicine and become a doctor when we really wanted to study political science and become a diplomat, or society’s expectations of six-figure salaries, fancy cars, and a corner office … the word success evokes ideas and feelings that are often very far from what we genuinely desire to have in our lives.

As individuals, we typically do want to be successful. 

Yet our underlying beliefs about what it takes to be successful can stop us in our tracks. When we secretly believe we’d have to work 24/7 doing boring, distasteful tasks, sacrificing our values, and submitting to arbitrary authority, we can find any number of ways to sabotage ourselves. And why not? No one wants to live that way.

As leaders, we want our organizations to be successful. 

Yet when leadership teams come together, their individual beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about success – what it is, what it means, and how to achieve it – collide, creating disconnects and outright conflict.

It’s no wonder leaders struggle to align around a vision of organizational success that everyone can believe in and wholeheartedly work toward. They’re operating with different definitions of success, and some of those definitions are unappealing at best, and downright scary at worst.

And no one stops to ask the essential question: what does success really mean? After all, doesn’t everyone already know? “Success” is a simple, two-syllable word that we understand from a very early age. What’s the big deal?

It’s a very big deal.

Why a clear definition is important

When everyone on the leadership team is working with different – and often threatening – definitions of success, they will never – can never – come to wholehearted agreement on, nor full commitment to, fundamental issues of organizational vision and strategy.

On the other hand, when leadership teams take the time to have real conversations about their individual vision of personal and organizational success, the influence of past struggles and present misconceptions can be consciously set aside, instead of unconsciously undermining efforts to move forward.

Then they can see and begin to explore the wide-open horizon of potential.

And then they can create a vision of organizational success that’s inspiring and challenging while also feeling wholly attainable.

The challenge: a new definition of success

As stated earlier, success isn’t a particularly difficult concept. So it seems as if coming to a more inspiring, motivating definition of success ought to be easy.

In actuality, it’s one of those simple-but-not-easy tasks.

Because finding your own definition – individually and for your organization – requires honesty and vulnerability.

It demands that you face your hidden, secret (perhaps even from yourself) thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about being successful.

And those may vary from “To be successful, I’d have to work more hours than there are in the day and I’d never have any fun ever again!” to “Successful people are unethical pigs.”

Defining success, therefore, demands that you and your leadership team have clear, clean, honest conversations that are likely to tap into feelings of vulnerability. And typically, we don’t want to go there.

But real conversations such as this are powerful. They offer each participant an opportunity to bring all of themselves into play. And that provides a sense of empowerment and fulfillment that leads to important shifts in individual and organizational success.

But aren’t there other reasons why organizations fail to succeed?

Of course.

Bad planning, lack of communication, failure to understand the customer, broken processes, poor products or services, bad customer service, insufficient or inappropriate marketing, ineffective sales teams, failure to understand pricing and cash flow – the list is endless.

But without a clear definition of success that the leadership team (and therefore the rest of the organization) is inspired by, feels motivated by, and believes to be achievable, those issues and many more will be both rampant and miserably difficult to solve. The leadership team will disagree about what to solve, how to solve, and even whether to solve, the problems that are holding them back. And those solutions that are put in place will tend to be only temporary fixes.


Because when there have been no real conversations about what success means, the tendency to work at cross-purposes and subtly sabotage efforts to move forward remains unchecked.

The underlying issue – the actual disease, of which all those problems are merely symptoms – is the lack of clarity about the concept of success.

Without that clarity, the uncomfortable, threatening, I-don’t-want-that-in-my-life beliefs about success remain unexamined. And the disagreements, lack of united focus, and subtle undermining continues.

It’s not easy to come to a collaborative definition of success and an inspiring, believable vision for the future.

But it’s worth the effort.