Falling, Rising and Bouncebackability

Last April I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop organised by Kevin Bowring and facilitated by Chris Grant. The workshop explored group dynamics and the final part of the workshop looked at turning around failing teams.

I was reminded of the issues Chris raised when a colleague shared with me a link to a book excerpt from Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In. In the excerpt, Jim Collins asks:

How do the mighty fall? If some of the greatest companies in history can go from iconic to irrelevant, what might we learn by studying their demise, and how can others avoid their fate? … Might it be possible to detect decline early and reverse course—or even better, might we be able to practice preventive medicine?

Jim Collins and his colleagues undertook a comparative and historical analysis of their company database that “yielded a descriptive model of how the mighty fall that consists of five stages that proceed in sequence.”
Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

  • Arrogance
  • Success regarded as an entitlement
  • Lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success
  • The rhetoric of success replaces penetrating understanding and insight

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

  • More scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as “success”
  • Stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place
  • Making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

  • Internal warning signs begin to mount, yet external results remain strong enough to “explain away” disturbing data
  • Leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data.
  • Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility.
  • The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

  • A charismatic visionary leader
  • Bold but untested strategy
  • Radical transformation
  • Dramatic cultural revolution
  • A hoped-for blockbuster product
  • A “game-changing” acquisition
  • Any number of other silver-bullet solutions

The very moment when we need to take calm, deliberate action, we run the risk of doing the exact opposite and bringing about the very outcomes we most fear. By grasping about in fearful, frantic reaction, late Stage 4 companies accelerate their own demise.

Stage 5: Capitulation

  • Accumulated setbacks and expensive false starts erode financial strength and individual spirit
  • Leaders abandon all hope of building a great future

Jim Collins cautions that the really scary part is “You do not visibly fall until Stage 4! Companies can be well into Stage 3 decline and still look and feel great, yet be right on the cusp of a huge fall. Decline can sneak up on you, and—seemingly all of a sudden—you’re in big trouble.”
Two concluding thoughts from this excellent excerpt:

  1. “The signature of the truly great vs. the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty. It’s the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before. … As long as you never get entirely knocked out of the game, there remains hope.”
  2. “The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat … and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down—and getting up one more time—without end.”

I wonder if these are two characteristics of bouncebackability in sport or even comebackability.
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  1. I was fascinated by the 50:50 split in the room of experts, some of whom thought there was no issue and others who were more concerned. I brooded on this over the weekend and it got me thinking about another, but related question ‘How do we know if things are OK?’ Here are some questions we could ask:
    Planetary survival
    Measures such as air, water and soil health, the state of forests, fish stocks and many more. In short are we passing on to future generations a healthy self-sustaining planet as determined by a set of measures of planetary health?
    The fair and just society
    – salary differentials between the rich and poor. Who owns the wealth and how is it distributed?
    The harmonious society
    – the trend in crime levels and peoples’ perceptions of these levels
    – the liveability of cities and neighbourhoods – including the social capital they provide
    – gross national happiness (measures that see more to life than traditional economic measures of output)
    Basic rights
    – educational access and standards
    – the physical and mental health of the citizenry and their ability to access health care without it disadvantaging their livelihood
    – how effective is the citizenry in influencing governments in comparison with powerful lobby groups with a commercial interest?
    I would like to include the right of people to free expression but realise this is so entwined in subjective value judgements (religious and racial vilification, pornography etc) that it may be too difficult to measure.
    I wonder if the experts in the room had a ‘dashboard’ summary showing trends over 3 or 4 decades of these (and other) measures whether the split would have been as it was? My guess, alas, is that it would have been much the same. I think ideology, political affiliations and upbringing cloud thinking when it comes to questions as big as ‘Is America on a road to failure?’

  2. […] At present I have a voracious appetite to learn more about the technical aspects of canoe slalom. I have never paddled a kayak and so my coaching of the sport is based entirely upon my real-time observation and an unequivocal commitment to athlete flourishing. Sometimes I fail miserably in both regards but I do have a philosophy that guides me, helps me to get back on track and bounceback. […]


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