By Dan Coughlin

Assume success.

Assume that all of your hard work over all these years has suddenly paid off in the form of you achieving what you’ve always wanted. You now have the income, title, responsibilities, authority, scope of influence, skills, reputation, clients, and flow of opportunities that you’ve always dreamed of having.

Now the real work begins.

It is far harder to handle success successfully than it is to persevere through tough times. Are you really ready to demonstrate long-term greatness if great success suddenly comes your way?

A Brief History of Being Good with Bad Times and Bad with Good Times

Over the past one hundred years, Americans have demonstrated they are very good at dealing with bad times and very bad at dealing with good times.

During the U.S. involvement in World War I (1915-1918) Americans pulled together and demonstrated extraordinary levels of sacrifice, commitment, and teamwork to pull through the country’s worst catastrophe since the Civil War. This was followed by the Roaring 20s when many Americans thought they had discovered the secret to wealth in the stock market and danced their hearts away.

That was followed by the Great Depression and World War II, a time once again marked by long-term sacrifice, focus, commitment, and teamwork. In the relatively affluent 50s, American companies flourished and Americans bought toasters, washing machines, televisions, cars, and refrigerators like they were going out of style, which they often did. This was followed by the tumultuous late 60s and the economic recession throughout much of the 70s.

The materialism and economic growth of the 80s were followed by the recession of the early 90s. The wild prosperity fueled by the dot com craze of the late 90s was followed by the dot com bubble burst in March 2000 and the ensuing recession that marked those years. U.S. citizens bonded together after the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001 in ways many people had never seen before. The rise in home prices and the stock market in 2003-2006 were followed by the prolonged recession from December 2007 through today. Once again Americans are becoming good at sacrifice, commitment, and teamwork.

But why are we so bad at handling good times in ways that could allow us to continually improve our results? Why are we so often are own worst enemy when we are in the best position to generate long-term sustainable success? And what lessons can be learned from history that an individual can apply in his or her own career to sustain greatness when success finally arrives?

Lesson #1: Remember there ain’t no free lunch, no silver bullets, and no secret fountains of money.

During good times, Americans have consistently thought they had it all figured out. Somehow we forget that we’ve had short-term success in the past that didn’t work out very well.

In the mid-1920s, mid-1980s, late 1990s, and mid-2000s, many Americans thought buying stocks would automatically move them up the economic ladder. The greatest piece of business advice I’ve ever learned is “there ain’t no free lunch.” In the late 1890s people thought finding gold was the key and in the late 1990s people thought buying dot-com “gold” was the answer. Don’t ever assume that a stock purchase, a good relationship with your boss, a degree from the “right” university, or employment at a “great” company will ensure your long-term greatness. It won’t. The stock market collapses in 1929, 1987, 2000, and 2008 have shown what goes up doesn’t necessarily always continue to go up.

Based on the amazing sales of American manufactured products and the extraordinary rise in the standard of living for Americans in the 1950s, many people thought that U.S. managers had discovered a silver bullet and would continue to generate incredible economic growth forever. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Many key U.S. executives in the 1960s focused more on profits than on constantly improving the quality and safety of what their companies were producing and they made their companies and industries vulnerable to attacks from a host of other companies.

They quickly learned through the painful 70s that customers don’t care about their profits. They also learned that customers do care about quality, safety, and value. Many executives in the financial industry from 2003-2007 thought they had figured out a way to turn bad loans into great products until one day they found out that wasn’t a secret fountain of money either.

When your great day of success shows up, don’t waste any energy thinking you have it all figured out. Keep striving to get better. Success just means you have a better foundation to work off of for the future. It doesn’t mean you have a guaranteed incredible future.

Lesson #2: Great performance creates great value, and poor performance ruins it.

Jason Jennings has written a tremendous new book called, Hit The Ground Running: A Manual for New Leaders (Portfolio 2009). I’ve decided to rename the subtitle: A Manual for Leaders Who Aspire for Greatness because I believe any executive or manager in any for-profit or not-for-profit organization would benefit tremendously from this remarkably powerful book.

Jason Jennings is the rare person who has the energy to climb the massive mountain of research necessary to really understand an issue and the patience to climb down the mountain and explain what he has learned in practical ways that people can actually use. He and his research team took the 1,000 largest publicly-owned U.S. companies and searched for the best performers from 2001-2007. He wanted the whole focus to be on performance that occurred in the 21st century. Through a series of extraordinarily stringent filters, he narrowed his list to the nine best-performing American companies in this century. He then personally interviewed the ten CEOs (one company has co-CEOs) of these companies. What he found re-energized me. These ten CEOs did, and did not do, some very unusual things.

They were clearly anti-fancy. When they inherited large personal offices, they got rid of the fancy furniture, brought in conference tables and whiteboards, and created working functional spaces for themselves and their team members. One took out his private bathroom and asked why in the world he would need his own bathroom.

They were anti-buzzwords. None of them talked about six-month strategic development processes, stated lofty and complicated visions, spent insane amounts of money for big-name consulting firms to tell them what to do, or hung posters with catchy themes at every one of their business locations.

They talked with employees, board members, managers, and past CEOs. These high-performing CEOs are very down-to-earth individuals. Consistently, they said they didn’t have all the answers and wanted to get to know and learn from as many people connected with their organizations as they could. They were not acting like the proverbial superhero action figures ready to save people from peril. They were genuine individuals who simply wanted to learn anything they could to help their companies succeed in the short and long term.

They clarified a destination and practical steps to achieve that destination in a reasonable time frame. They simply refused to get caught up in making wild predictions to drive their stock price higher. They were maniacal about establishing practical plans and continually monitoring progress to make sure those plans were on track. They remained flexible in making adjustments to hit their desired destination. They kept their businesses as simple as they possibly could in order to optimize efficiency and productivity.

The single biggest takeaway for me from the very best CEOs and their companies is that they maintained a singular focus on improving the performance they felt would benefit their customers the most in terms of creating real value for them.

If you want to be able to strengthen your mantle for greatness, the absolute key is to always improve your performance, which is the actual creation of value that other people will want to use and will benefit from in a meaningful way. If you develop the ability to always do exactly that in good economic and bad economic times, you will be able to handle success and maintain the capacity for greatness over the long term.

Lesson #3: Avoid the “So what are you up to lately?” dilemma.

I think this is the most subtle and pervasive problem in the history of U.S. economics. No matter how successful a company or an individual becomes, the first question asked of him or her by friends and family is, “So what are you up to lately?” In other words, “What have you achieved lately, what is your salary, what new homes are you buying, what vacation homes are you building, and where is the next fancy resort you’re going to visit?” The problem isn’t with the question or the questioners. The problem is the distraction that individuals allow it to create.

This obsession with more, more, more, bigger, bigger, bigger, and faster, faster, faster throws out of whack the steady, plain, simple, consistent, and boring process of creating greater value that customers will want to purchase at reasonable fees that will generate long-term growth. This is not a modern phenomenon. At least since the 1920s, and then repeated at least every couple of decades, Americans have become maniacal about taking some short-term success and wanting to convert it immediately into much greater success. Whatever happened to the tortoise beating the hare?

I encourage you to improve, create greater value, achieve some success, and then repeat that formula consistently over the entire period of your working life. It is what made you successful once and it is what will consistently make you successful in the future. Just don’t force the future into today’s envelope. Be patient and let your improvements generate greater success when the time is right.

Lesson #4: Values matter and so do lack of values.

Nothing has ever destroyed future greatness faster than a breakdown in personal values. Values are beliefs that determine behaviors. You get to choose six. What six values do you want guiding your behaviors? Ok, if you really want, you can choose eight, but that’s it. Here are mine: integrity, curiosity, friendliness, open-mindedness, innovation, and empathy. OK, two more: tenacity and accountability. That’s it.

Choose your values carefully. If you want to build a personal mantle that can handle success and sustain itself for a lifetime of greatness, then you have to live by the values you’ve chosen carefully. I’ve never met the person who chose cheating, lying, and stealing to be the values that would guide his or her life. For some people, those things snuck in when they weren’t watching their values. Watch your values carefully and let greatness sneak in when you’re not looking.

If you lie about little things, you’ll lie about big things. If you’ll take more money than your company can realistically afford to pay you just because you can get away with it, you’ve shown where your priorities are for the long term. Don’t reward yourself today based on dreams for tomorrow. If you’re honest in little things, you will be in big things as well. Values have a way of repeating themselves.

Be ready for success. It can happen at any moment.

About Dan Coughlin

He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of ACCELERATE: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum. He speaks on leadership, branding, sales, and innovation. His next book, The Management 500: A High-Octane Formula for Business Success, which is about practical management lessons from the history of professional auto racing, will be published in May 2009.