Luck and Strategic Choices

In the closing chapters of his treatise The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli outlined his observations on how far human affairs are governed by Fortune  or “Luck”. He thought there was a significant difference between luck and strategic choices. Machiavelli did not believe that human beings should merely submit to the rulings of chance but he did acknowledge that it was “probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.”

He expounded that luck only opens the door to opportunity and it is up to each of us to recognise that opening door and to step through. He went on to give a number of examples from history and his own time of where capable leaders seized the opportunity presented by some fortuitous circumstance to move on to greatness. This was then contrasted by others who did not change their approach or strategy in the light of changing circumstances and thus encountered failure.          

This simple philosophy reflects the important strategic competence of adaptability – i.e. the ability to observe changing circumstances and to capitalise on them to achieve one’s goals.

 What about sheer dumb luck?

I have heard people use the phrase ”The harder I work the luckier I get” or say that they make their own luck. But we can all identify situations where inexplicable coincidence or extraordinary encounters provide world changing opportunities. Two that come to my mind are as follows

1. During Operation Market Garden in the Second World War (the  massive Allied airborne assault on Arnhem) a glider carrying troops crashed, killing all on board. Not an unusual event and only one of many on the first day. However in this case among the dead was a high-ranking officer carrying very detailed plans of the invasion. That day the German officer who inspected the wreck could not believe his good fortune in finding the satchel full of plans.


(Image: Flemming, courtesy

2. In the 19th Century scientist Alexander Flemming working on a cure for infection control, left some of his testing trays unattended while he went on holiday. On returning, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed. He famously remarked “That’s funny“. It was not planned or designed by the scientist but the results gave the world penicillin and changed the practice of medicine.

In both these cases luck was at work, but in line with Machiavelli’s observation, if the German officer had not realised the importance of the papers and taken them to his headquarters or if Flemming had just thrown out the dirty dishes rather than seek to understand why the mould had killed the bad bacteria, their good fortune would have remained unrealised.

So it is then that leaders and managers in organisations need to be able to remain alert for that encounter with serendipity that will provide the opportunity for action to achieve great things. How can we become aware or sensitised to the possible influence of luck in any of our life or business situations?

Do you feel lucky?

Some philosophers believe that there are lucky behaviours that attract good fortune. They do not mean carrying a rabbit’s foot.


(Image: courtesy

What are lucky habits? In a business context that often means:

  • Learn continuously – including from the success of others and our own mistakes
  • Practice applying knowledge – make exercising good judgement second nature
  • Be adaptable – adjusting strategy to circumstance
  • Seek to continually improve – professionally and personally
  • Partner and collaborate with others – increase the field of supportive allies
  • Explore and innovate – seek out new experiences

Luck will find you more quickly if you set up the right conditions and go looking for that opening door.

What about Plain Bad Luck?

Considering the converse, bad luck usually has an identifiable cause. We might not be able to control it and usually it is identifiable only in hindsight. The trick is to note the cause and consequence and act to prevent or mitigate that consequence next time the source of the cause is observed. The key strategy is not to write off errors and mistakes as bad luck and leave it at that. The failure of the rubber seal on the space shuttle Challenger had terrible consequences but if NASA considered it was just bad luck and not sought to remedy it, the lives of all subsequent crews would have been in jeopardy also.

Regardless of all our good planning sometimes it happens. There are many variables and initiatives that are controlled or precipitated by others and beyond our influence. A great deal of luck relates to timing  – a few minutes early or late can be the difference between success and failure.

Timing like other strategies is a matter of making choices. Which path will lead to where we would prefer to be?

luck and strategic choices

Philosophers and science fiction writers often ponder on the concept of alternative futures based on the principle of choice. In other words choose one action against another and future consequences can alter dramatically. Choose to adopt a more or less assertive approach to a job interview and either impress or alienate the interview panel as a result and therefore either win or lose the position and its future opportunities.


 Carefully assessing the environment and the participants can help improve your choice, and reduce your reliance on luck.

How much should we rely on luck?

As Machiavelli points out, luck can be a tipping point but you need to have the awareness and skill to leverage it. It might be said that the more skill you have the less luck you need or alternatively the more bad luck you can mitigate in achieving your goals.

So be well-prepared and if good luck comes along you can ride the wave by making good strategic choices according to the unfolding circumstances. The worst strategy is to just sit there waiting for luck to happen – because you could lose even the opportunities that could be secured by your very own skill and initiative.

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