Success: Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

On Friday’s On Point program on NPR, Devlin Barrett and Tom Ricks discussed the burgeoning “Generals’ Affair” scandal. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal has a commentary by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which reinforces several analyses in that paper last week. The two have something in common, and an interesting parallel to small business.

Part of the radio conversation focused on the opinions of Petraeus as a great General, with specific comparisons to George S. Patton. His handling of the “surge” in Iraq, when the US was in real danger of another ignominious Vietnam-type withdrawal is, according to this viewpoint, tactically equivalent to Patton’s strikes across Europe in WWII.

The problem with that thinking, as the commentators pointed out, is that Petraeus didn’t win. We still withdrew from Iraq, leaving a country in turmoil with a strong insurgency, and without curbing the growing influence of Iran. It is true that Petraeus did a marvelous tactical job, but he didn’t accomplish the big objective.

Similarly, the WSJ stories about Mitch McConnell described why he can’t cooperate in any tax increases, because he has to stand for reelection in two years. The premise appears to be that he can fail to fix the country’s problems, but will still be considered successful if he personally retains his position.

As small business owners, we don’t have the same flexibility in judging our results. Small businesses either succeed or they fail. I’ve met many former owners who tell me that their business had a great product, but unfortunately enough people didn’t buy it. Others say that they delivered a terrific service, but they couldn’t price it well enough to make a profit. Not to be harsh, but we call those failures.

We live in a black and white world. Your definition of success as a business owner may be as modest as financial security for your family, or it may be as ambitious as growing a large corporation that employs thousands of people. It is probably something in between. But whatever the objective, I never hear business owners say that they judge success as being just “good enough.”

No one is asked to deliver a presentation titled “I am a great entrepreneur, because I avoided failure” Other owners would laugh the speaker out of the room. How would you feel about a doing business with a company whose mission statement said “We don’t worry about delivering what we are paid for, as long as we get paid?”

Harry Truman was the last President to have owned a small business. It failed. His famous desk plaque, “The Buck Stops Here,” was a small business owner’s view of the world. He didn’t blame his generals, or his cabinet, or market conditions. He knew that success was success, not merely avoidance of failure, or of the blame for failure.

As business owners, our concept of success or failure isn’t fungible, it’s inherent in everything we do, every single day. Harry Truman had worked without a net. He understood a world where failure wasn’t softened by a fat pension, transfer to another department, or a speaking tour.

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