By Tony Samson

AFTER the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John Kennedy famously noted: “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” It seems this quote was originally from Tacitus which in Latin has a slightly different tone: “This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”

In trying to grab credit for success, many self-proclaimed fathers jostle for acclaim. Basking in unearned triumphs takes some cheek, especially when the involvement is marginal. (I was serving them coffee when they decided on the winning bid.)

Sharing the limelight can be a simple matter of sneaking uninvited into a group photo in front of a championship trophy.

Brilliant ideas with successful outcomes are hard to pin down to individuals. Concepts are not subject to ownership rights. This is the whole point of intellectual property rights like patents and authorships which are often the subject of litigation and settlements for big bucks.

Claiming other people’s ideas as one’s own is plagiarism, and more than a simple breach of etiquette. While words set on paper or blogs are properly dated and attributed, fleeting insights and ideas in a business discussion are more abstract and often neither properly recorded nor definitively attributed.

There is no accepted process that allocates credit, like those who thought of an idea first — why don’t we create a platform for sharing rides? Even email is not a reliable record of chronology and authorship, as what is written down may be based on something already discussed earlier. “Aha moments” are not recorded under intellectual property.

Even when someone thought up a great idea first, another person operationalized it and made it work with all the moving parts. Who gets the bigger credit?

Credits for ideas, performance, and achievements are rewarded with recognition and a bigger paycheck. So, this is not just about bragging rights. It may mean the Nobel Prize or at least a promotion and a better car.

Individual honors like “Most Valuable Player” are sought and treasured, even in team sports like basketball or hockey. True, the recipient of the trophy feigns modesty in his acceptance speech by saying he couldn’t have won the award without his teammates. Yet he alone gets to bring home the prize and the bigger paycheck that comes with it.

Recognition can be sought as an end in itself. In the corporate world, the quiet worker who contributes to excellent performance behind the scenes (usually classified as “support service”) just gets more assignments as the adulation (and promotions) go to others above him — yes sir, your file is in the folder tagged “looney tunes.”

Corporate culture highlights individual achievement as a basis for bonuses and promotions and thus encourages credit-grabbing as a way of getting ahead. Even in team-building exercises out of town, one team is usually pitted against another… around designated leaders.

Paternity for success, as in its biological counterpart, is not so easy to establish as it requires a combination of knowing the mother (and more importantly the mother knowing the claimant) as well as a combination of opportunity, intimacy, and the confluence of factors synchronized with the gestation period.

The movie Mamma Mia! handles this conundrum of the bride’s rightful father among three possible partners of the Mom. All three sing their claims to the right ABBA song. In the end, it really doesn’t matter who the real father of the bride is. All the potential fathers love the bride to be, and get to sing the nice finale number, “Dancing Queen”.

An adviser for a successful venture may opt to hide his influence, cherishing his anonymity even as powerful people seek his counsel and claim the credit. When queried on his influence on high profile leaders, he demurs — we just had coffee and chatted about old friends. Powers behind thrones deflect envy by affecting a lack of influence on any decisions made.

A quote attributed to Harry Truman notes: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Grabbing glory takes too much effort. It also leads to turf wars and the sabotage of good ideas coming from the wrong person.

Anyway, successful initiatives eventually go wrong. Murphy’s Law states: “If anything can go wrong, it will”. Not as well-known is a corollary, one of many, to Murphy’s Law which goes: “When things go right… the wrong person gets the credit.”


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.