What Saturday November 4th 1978 taught me about business

Published on 4 November 2021 by Adam Leigh

Who remembers what they were doing on 4th November 1978?  Oh, you’re all going to tell me you weren’t born or were toddling around in nappies, drooling.

Well, let me tell you I remember that Saturday well.

James Callaghan was our Prime Minister, and we were about to enter the famous Winter of Discontent. (Of course, we have Boris at the helm in 2021 and we will just have to deal with the Winter of the Incompetent.) That afternoon, my beloved Spurs drew two all away to Norwich with goals from pacy winger Peter Taylor and donkey-like centre forward Colin Lee. An online search shows that the weather in London was pretty similar to today.

I was a compact 13-year-old with a centre-parting and a mild interest in the opposite sex, oblivious to the hindrance that my hair style would prove over the following years. In the middle of the morning, I stood with my brother and two older boys on the tee of the 180 yard, par 3 sixth hole on the Hunt Course at Hartsbourne Golf Club in Bushey. I grabbed my Dunlop Junior Four Wood out the bag and took a Ballesteros-like practice swing before addressing the ball. Hello ball.

I then unleashed a mighty drive, which started left heading for the trees, but augmented by my natural fade, then veered towards the two-tier green at the last moment. The pin was on the right-hand side of the lower tier, and I watched with growing disbelief as the ball rolled along the slope of the green towards the hole. For what seemed an eternity, it trickled toward the cup. Already, I had achieved something new, having never managed to get on the green before. And then it happened. The ball hit the flag and disappeared. There was pandemonium on the tee. No one had ever seen a shot so magnificent before.

My father, co-incidentally, was playing on an adjacent hole and I sprinted to him shouting “Dad, Dad, I got a hole in one!” In those days, the tradition was to buy the whole club a drink and it was particularly busy that Saturday. I am not saying my father is parsimonious, but he abandoned his game, rushed to the car park to start the car, and whisked me home before the barman could open a jeroboam of Babycham.

It was in truth a lucky and ugly shot but remains the high spot of my limited sporting achievements.  Gary Player, the golfing icon, famously commented “the more I practice, the luckier I get.” I wonder if that is a truth behind success in business, or do we have to rely on the slope of a green and an unusual trajectory to make things happen?

In my former advertising career, I had many moments when success was the bi-product of good fortune. Doing well was defined by winning new accounts and this tended to happen most often when a former client, who had been miraculously receptive to my fawning sycophancy, arrived at a new job and needed to change agency.  It was the glorious serendipity of other people’s career aspirations that created  new opportunities for growth. 

Larry Page and Sergey Brin started out as Stamford PHD students developing a Page-Rank algorithm which they called Backrub and made available to the university. Indeed, they wanted to find funding to license it and make more money for Stamford. Folklore suggests that they were not well-liked enough to get the backing and decided to go it alone. They eventually did find the investment and the rest, as they say, is search-history. But their initial failure, was their enormous dollop of luck.

Most management books have titles that suggest you can control your destiny turning things from ‘Good to Great’. No one has yet written a book called ‘Right Place. Right Time’ based on the famous John Paul Getty quote: “Formula for success. Rise Early. Work Hard. Strike Oil.” 

There is academic research which backs up the theory that luck is better than good judgement. In the late sixties, the Canadian psychologist Laurence J. Peter advanced an apparently paradoxical principle, know now as the Peter Principle: ‘Every new member in a hierarchical organisation climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence’.

This was revisited in a study in 2010, by the University of Catania in Sicily, which created a computer model of 1,000 virtual people to test the source of corporate success. Some people were given more talent, intelligence, or money than the average worker, while others were given less, to mimic real life. During a 40-year career, some individuals experienced ‘lucky events’ – opportunities to boost their career that they could exploit using their talent or intelligence. But some were also hit by ‘unlucky events’ that took wealth away from them.

At the end of the 40-year simulation, successful people tended to have some level of either talent, wealth, or intelligence, but those who rose to the top were almost always the luckiest. “It is evident that the most successful individuals are also the luckiest ones, and the less successful individuals are also the unluckiest ones,” concluded physicist Professor Alessandro Pluchino.

The evidence would suggest that talent and drive are not enough without cosmic forces creating a nasty pothole in the road for your competitors. But, at the same time, ambitious people are happy to keep going unrelentingly with a belief that good fortune will arrive in due course. Entrepreneurs when reviewing their achievement, will always acknowledge both the randomness of their journey and the unwavering nature of their determination.

I have played golf for another 43 years and not had another hole in one.  But I keep practicing waiting to get a bit luckier. In the meantime, my first novel ‘The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus’ is available at Amazon.co.uk and is the story of a start-up that become very successful through ruthlessness flukiness.  My ambition is for someone reading my book, to recommend it to someone, who recommends it to someone who recommends it to Adele, who tweets how good it is and tells her 17 billion followers to buy it before they buy her new album. I mean, it could happen. It’s not as if I had ever got onto the 6th green before November 4th, 1978.