The Perils of Success and How to Overcome Them

Published August 9, 2018

A veteran businessman who successfully founded and grew multiple businesses in a variety of industries once observed, “No one wants to fail, but the toughest challenges emerge when you achieve your goal, not when you fall short.”

This counterintuitive idea—that success may be more difficult to handle than failure—is not the sort of thing we often hear. Yet, business history is littered with examples. In 1984, IBM posted the greatest after-tax profit of any company in world history until that time: $6.58 billion. Just eight years later, IBM reported the greatest corporate loss ever up to that time: $5 billion, as the business historian John Steele Gordon observed.

Or consider the rise and fall of Polaroid. It so dominated its market that everybody called instant photos Polaroids. The name was literally a household word. It seemed everyone was snapping and shaking their Polaroid cameras—right up until the digital revolution passed the company by and Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, just like one of its instant photographs from decades gone by.

Or consider Yahoo! In 2005, it was number one in the online advertising market. But after relying too heavily on its marketplace prominence instead of changing to serve its customers better as new competition arose, and backing out of potential deals to purchase Google and Facebook, Yahoo now finds itself in danger of completely disappearing.

In these three cases and countless others, successful businesses achieved dramatic success and then failed—sometimes spectacularly, sometimes with barely a whimper. They achieved record profits and prominence, but as new challenges arose, they couldn’t, to use the unofficial U.S. Marine Corps slogan, “improvise, adapt, overcome.”


Political Success—or Failure?

It’s not so different in the political, policymaking arena. A few years back, a friend of mine was the majority leader of his state legislative chamber, with the duty—and great power—of selecting which bills to place on the legislative calendar for floor debate, vote, and passage. All others would suffer a swift demise.

During a legislative scheduling session, the majority leader identified an insurance bill that had been supported by key business interests, passed the appropriate committee, and appeared to be a solid, conservative bill for his Republican majority to consider. The majority leader invited the special interests’ lobbyist to the state capitol to discuss the impending victory.

After proudly announcing that the bill would move forward and almost certainly pass, he was stunned by the lobbyist’s response: “Do not bring the bill up for debate!” The majority leader was utterly confused. Had the industry changed its opinion on the topic? No. Had new political opposition arisen? Nope. Had the state’s governor decided to oppose the bill? No.

What was the problem, then? The lobbyist was very clear: If this bill were to pass in the current legislative session, the lobbyist asked, what would he do next year? If he accomplished his legislative goal, he might not be hired again. Success would mean there was no further need for his services.

In politics as in business, success can be perilous.


Heartland’s Successes

The Heartland Institute has achieved significant, measurable policy successes in recent years. One need look no further than two Heartland visits to the White House which occurred almost exactly one year apart.

On June 1, 2017, Heartland’s Joe Bast joined President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden for the official announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the horrendous Paris Climate Accord. “President Trump made exactly the right call by deciding to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Treaty,” Joe said at the time. “Staying in would make it impossible to implement his America First Energy Plan and result in U.S. taxpayers and consumers paying hundreds of billions of dollars in higher taxes and higher energy costs.”

The successes continued. In January 2018, Heartland’s government relations team planted boots on the ground in Wisconsin on numerous occasions, testifying and counseling lawmakers on the ins and outs of welfare reform. The result of Heartland’s hard work came on April 11, when Gov. Scott Walker signed a package of laws that brought conservative, commonsense, work-focused welfare reform to Wisconsin. We are now working to export these historic innovations to the other 49 states and the federal government.

In late June, U.S. District Court Judge William Allsup threw out a lawsuit brought by left-wing city officials in San Francisco and Oakland, who were attempting to hold five of the world’s largest oil companies financially liable for rising sea levels and other alleged damages from manmade global warming. In many cases, the supposed damages had never occurred.

Heartland Institute policy advisors joined an important amici curiae brief answering the judge’s call for a “climate tutorial”; Heartland submitted a Policy Brief, “The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels,” to answer Allsup’s questions about the benefits of fossil fuels; and Heartland experts published key op-eds—all of which helped to win the “Climate Trial of the Century.”


Ah, winning. It never gets old.

But wait, there’s more. Remember I said that there were two visits to the White House? Well, almost a year to the day after Joe’s visit, I was invited to the White House to watch Trump sign into law the Right to Try bill, groundbreaking legislation promoted by The Heartland Institute that will help terminally ill patients and their families gain greater access to potentially lifesaving medications that have passed the Food and Drug Administration’s safety protocols and await full approval, providing hope to tens of thousands of families.


Beyond the Zenith

As we roll through the halfway point of 2018, I am happy to report The Heartland Institute has reached the zenith of its success—so far. There are many battles yet to be waged and wars to be won in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Some might suggest that now is the time to rest, to take the foot off the pedal for a bit and enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’m guessing the executives at IBM, Polaroid, and Yahoo might have thought the same thing, and look where that got them!

The Heartland attitude is markedly different from those businesses’ and many other think tanks’. It is perhaps best summed up by Heartland friend and retired U.S. Air Force Col. John A. Warden III, a Vietnam War combat pilot and the architect of the air campaign strategy in Operation Desert Storm. In his book written with business consultant Leland A. Russell, Winning in Fast Time, Warden lays out what many politicians, lobbyists, and businesses just don’t get about success: “When in doubt, attack. When you take the offensive, you have the opportunity to achieve exactly what you want because you set the agenda and the timetable.”

I promise you, we at Heartland will continue to press the attack in the war for America’s future, not rest on our laurels. We will work diligently to set the agenda and take the fight to those who oppose our personal liberties, not wait for their attacks. We will remain on the offensive, always looking for new successes, not simply defending our past victories. That’s how all vital wars are won, and nothing is more important than this war for freedom.