From Bob’s Desk: Hubris

By Bob Bacon

A few years ago, one of our coworkers came to my office and said is 13-year-old son had passed out and the doctors had determined he had a brain tumor. This is every parent’s worst nightmare. He and the neurosurgeon went over things, and they scheduled this son’s emergency surgery the next day.

Brain surgery is a very complicated procedure. He shared with me how calm and confident the surgeon seemed, almost like it was no big deal. The surgery was a success, and the tumor was benign, and the boy is fine.

I knew the surgeon from flying and I ran into him a few weeks later. I asked him about how scary it must be to operate on a child. He just said, “Not at all. I would never perform a surgery I wasn’t positive I could perform!”

I thought, “Of course. That makes perfect sense; he was an expert.”

Hubris is an exaggerated sense of confidence or pride, and it can lead to a loss of integrity.

I often write in my monthly note about how proud I am of the company and about how successful we have been. That is in the past and we can’t expect our past success to assure future results. Every day we need to be appropriately confident and cautiously aware of the risks of what we do. Our long-term results stem from continuous concern for what could go wrong and how we can appropriately guard against those risks.

As we grow and evolve into Elm 3.0 we will need to be confident experts at our work, while continuing to take on the risks of new projects and activities that will be required for our continued growth and evolution. Managing and considering the downside risk is a big factor in the long-term success of our company.

There is a long list of companies that exaggerated their confidence and got into serious trouble. Motorola spent and lost $5 billion building a satellite phone system just as cellular phone came of age in 1998. According to Bloomberg, Elon Musk paid $44 billion for Twitter and today it is valued at about $19 billion. We are good at what we do, but we will make mistakes and errors. By appropriately understanding who we are and what we know, we can protect against large losses and errors.

Sadly, the talented neurosurgeon I mentioned earlier was killed in an airplane accident when he encountered bad weather flying his new plane home from the factory. We are all only human and can make mistakes.