The Lucky One

When the charismatic Portuguese, Jose Mourinho, was appointed as manager of Chelsea FC in 2004, he marked his arrival to English football with his usual self-promotion, balancing between being charming and arrogant. As he famously declared at his first press conference in England: “I’m not one who comes straight out of a bottle – I’m a special one”
“The Special One” had arrived and he performed from day 1 by leading Chelsea to the club’s first league title in half a century. On Tuesday this week, Mourinho was back in England leading Real Madrid to a win against Manchester United in the Champions League – and again “The Special One” managed to position himself in the center of the spotlight when, two minutes before the final whistle, he hugged Sir Alex Ferguson and shook his hands almost apologetically, right before leaving the field whilst being filmed by every camera in the stadium. However, Mourinho’s self-promoting live show does not change the fact that the match at Old Trafford will mostly be remembered for the highly dubious red card to Manchester United’s Portuguese Nani in the 58th minute of the game, when United were in total control and leading 1-0. The sending-off changed the rhythm of the game completely, and Real Madrid ended up winning 2-1, whilst Old Trafford was about to boil over with rage because of the crucial refereeing error. But actually it was far from the first time that a referee’s error gave José Mourinho a decisive advantage in the Champions League, and it was not the first time that it had happened at Old Trafford. 10 years earlier, his career kicked off at Old Trafford sparked by a gigantic refereeing error when the young José Mourinho led FC Porto to a quarter final win in the Champions League against Manchester United. The first leg in Portugal ended 2-1 to FC Porto, and deep into the match at Old Trafford, United led 1-0 and were cruising towards the expected win. When Paul Scholes made it 2-0 it looked like game over for Mourinho and FC Porto, but the goal was incorrectly disallowed for offside. Costinha made it 1-1 in the final minute and FC Porto went on to the semi-finals with a comprehensive 3-2 victory. José Mourinho celebrated the goal by sliding on his knees on to the pitch and racing down the touchline to his players. As we know, FC Porto went on to win the Champions League that year with a 3-0 win against Monaco in the final, and a few months later José Mourinho was introduced as the new manager of Chelsea FC at the legendary press conference in London. The rest is history.
Mourinho in Valencia?
Over the years, “The Special One” has again and again been highlighted as an excellent team builder, a tactical genius and a hardworking coach far out of the ordinary, but the fact is that José Mounrinho’s career is built on much more than just “hard word, pride, effort and sweat”. Obviously he has benefitted from several wrong refereeing decisions at critical moments along the way. We are not just talking about small coincidences. We are talking about decisive, lucky events totally beyond his control. What happened on Tuesday this week, as well as in the game in 2003 at Old Trafford seems to have nothing to do with superior coaching skills. It was luck in its purest form, and it leads me to ask the question: What is it really that Mourinho’s success is built on, and what makes him so special? Is it luck rather than skill? Think about it! Where would Mourinho be today if Paul Scholes’ goal had not been disallowed in 2003, and Manchester United, as expected, had beaten FC Porto in the quarterfinals? Then he would probably not have been at Old Trafford this week, and would never have been presented as manager of Chelsea FC in 2004. This does not mean that José Mourinho is incompetent as a manager, but instead of coaching Real Madrid today, he might have been the manager of a club like Tottenham? Or Valencia? Or maybe he would still be in Portugal?
With Tuesday’s win, José Mourinho now has a unique opportunity to win his third Champions League trophy with three different clubs. If he succeeds, he will be a living legend, and we will probably have forgotten that what really made “The Special One” so special was not only great skills, but first and foremost a lot of career-enhancing luck at crucial moments.
Ferguson was lucky too.
My intention with this article is not to belittle José Mourinho and reduce his success solely to a matter of luck, but I believe that “the luck factor” is often underestimated when trying to explain success. So it is generally in life. We do not appreciate the luck that allows us to survive. We do not recall all the incidents when we nearly died, where our continued existence depended on toss of a coin – heads you live, tails you die. The same is true in football. Wrong offside decisions, disallowed goals and fouls that were never called are among the most decisive career moments for a football manager. Much of the success that we experience is built on a solid base of good luck, and the failures on bad luck. This is true not only for José Mourinho, but also for his opponent on Tuesday, Sir Alex Ferguson, he too has had good luck on his side at crucial times. When Ferguson was still a young Manchester United manager in 1990 his job was reportedly on the line at a FA Cup game against Nottingham Forest. In the final minutes the United striker Mark Robins scored the winning goal and saved the career of Ferguson. Watch the goal here:
United went on to win the Cup and Sir Alex never looked back. Had Robbins not scored that very late goal and had Nottingham Forrest’s equalizer a minute later not been disallowed Alex Ferguson would probably have lost his job. The question is: Where would he then have been today? It is hard to say, but at least he would not be the manager of Manchester United. This of course raises many questions: When we believe that what we see is unique talent, what we really see might just be the least unlucky managers so far. But how do we manage the luck factor? Can we even create our own luck? And if so how do you do it?
Return on luck.
A few years ago the American management professor, Jim Collins, completed a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times. He examined entrepreneurs who built small enterprises into companies that outperformed their industries by a factor of 10. The very nature of this study led him to the question: What is the role of luck in success? Could it be that leaders’ skills account for the difference between just meeting their industry’s average performance (1X success) and doubling it (2X)? But that luck accounts for all the difference between 2X and 10X?
In his pursuit to deal with this question, Jim Collins faced a tough challenge: How on Earth could he go about quantifying something as elusive as “luck”? The breakthrough came when he started seeing luck as an event, not as some indefinable aura. He defined a “luck event” as one that met three tests. First, some significant aspect of the event occurs largely or entirely independent of the actions of the enterprise’s main actors. Second, the event has a potentially significant consequence — good or bad. And, third, it has some element of unpredictability.
Jim Collins systematically found 230 significant luck events across the history of the study’s subjects. He considered good luck, bad luck, the timing of luck and the size of “luck spikes.” Adding up the evidence, he found that the best companies were not generally “luckier” than the comparison cases. They and the control group both had luck, good and bad, in comparable amounts, so the evidence led him to conclude that luck does not cause a superior business success. The crucial question is not, “Are you lucky?” but “Do you get a high return on luck? ” – what Collins ended up calling ROL (return on luck).
Jim Collins uses Bill Gates and his journey towards building a great software company in the personal computer revolution as an example of this. Through one lens, you might see Bill Gates as incredibly lucky. He just happened to have been born into an upper-middle-class American family that had the resources to send him to a private school. His family happened to enroll him at Lakeside School in Seattle, which had a Teletype connection to a computer upon which he could learn to program — something that was unusual for schools in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He also just happened to have been born at the right time, coming of age as the advancement of microelectronics made the PC inevitable. Had he been born 10 years later, or even just five years later, he would have missed the moment. Bill Gates’ friend Paul Allen just happened to see a cover article in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, titled “World’s First Microcomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” It was about the Altair, designed by a small company in Albuquerque. Gates and Allen had the idea to convert the programming language Basic into a product that could be used on the Altair, which would put them in position to be the first to sell such a product for a personal computer. Bill Gates went to college at Harvard, which just happened to have a PDP-10 computer upon which he could develop and test his ideas. He was really lucky, right?
Yes, he was, but luck was not why Bill Gates became an outlier, Jim Collins writes in his book “Great by Choice”. For example, Gates was not the only person of his era who grew up in an upper middle-class American family. He was not the only person born in the mid-1950s who attended a secondary school with access to computing, and he was not the only person who went to a college with computer resources in the mid-’70s? Thousands of people could have done the same thing that Bill Gates did, at the same time. However, they did not. The difference between him and similarly advantaged people is not luck. Gates went further, taking a confluence of lucky circumstances and creating a huge return on his luck. This is the important difference.
Luck, good or bad, happens to everyone, whether we like it or not. But when we look at the outliers, we see people like Mr. Gates who grab luck events and make much more of them. Bill Gates did not just get a lucky break and cash in his chips. He kept pushing, driving, working — and sustained that effort for more than two decades. This idea leads us back to Tuesday night when Nani was sent-off and Real Madrid took the lead. What did José Mourinho do just after the red card? He promptly sent the Croatian creator Luka Modric on to the pitch, who ended up making the difference with a goal and an assist. That is not luck – that is return on luck. Perhaps it is in fact precisely what makes “the special one” so special: He seems to have a unique ability to capitalize on the luck he gets. That is a truly special skill.

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