Updated: Aug 24
Paul Simon, one of my favorite musical artists, penned a song, I Am A Rock in 1965. The song about a recluse repeats the chorus, “I am a rock, I am an island.” I think about this song a lot because we tend to forget that achievement in life is rarely a solo act. We aren’t islands. We all stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us and helped us along the way.
I begin with a personal example. After earning my law degree, I launched into the practice of law which I enjoyed; however, I felt like my true calling was to use my business and legal training to be a strategic advisor to companies. I had known for several years that I wanted to make this transition, but I was stuck. I could not seem to make the switch and clung to my law career like a child holds onto a favorite blanket. I would not let it go.
A friend of mine, Dr. Carl Hicks helped me gain a much deeper understanding of myself. Carl is an expert with the Birkman® assessment tools and used them to help me clearly see my deepest needs as an individual. Through his example and encouragement, I realized that I could make this transition. He coached and encouraged me along the way. For that, I am forever grateful.
Achievements are Made With and Through People
Herbert Hoover, the United States’ 31st President, emphasized our country’s “rugged individualism.” He believed that the U.S. faced a decision between “the American system of ‘rugged individualism’ or the choice of a European system of diametrically opposed doctrines — doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government; it meant the undermining of initiative and enterprise upon which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.” It is interesting that almost 100 years later, the U.S. still debates this choice.
Regardless of your political views on this point, there is no denying that the emphasis on individualism and a “frontier mentality” runs deep in our culture. These concepts are related to the “American Dream” - the idea that each of us can have upward mobility through hard work. James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his 1931 book Epic of America. He stated, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
I describe these cultural patterns because it is easy to take them for granted and not realize the impact on our thinking and our lives. While there are many very positive aspects of these ideas, we can sometimes fail to understand the limitations. We can’t lose sight that the greatest successes in life are made with and through people. Great achievements in life are never solo endeavors. Sometimes we forget that. We can be like the turtle on the fence post. As the story goes, when you find a turtle on top of a fence post, "You know he didn't get there by himself, he doesn't belong there, he doesn't know what to do while he's up there, and you just want to help get him down."
In contrast, we can recognize that our success in life is from the help of others. There is a great expression that states we are standing on the shoulders of giants. This quote was first attributed to 12th century scholar Bernard of Chartres, who used to say, “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
The late Zig Ziglar had a wonderful quote he often repeated that “If you help enough people get what they want in life, you will get what you want.” This was not a manipulative idea; instead, it is one that recognizes that, by serving others, we truly are helping ourselves. When we can walk in humility and realize that our success in life is not just the result of our own hard work, but the help of many others along the way then we are on our way to being a true leader.
Building a Great Team
Once we recognize that success in life is not a solo act, then we can begin to consider the importance of building up others to create a great team. An organization with high performance teams will go further, faster. Teams are built on a foundation of trust. One of the ways to build trust is to invest yourself in the lives of others.
What does this mean? It means that you help other people elevate and achieve their goals and objectives. Unfortunately, this is rare. We are typically so caught up in the tyranny of the urgency of our own matters that we don’t stop and consider the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others. Think about it – do you really know what your colleagues are seeking out of life? Do you know what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning? What would be the difference if you did? By taking the time to understand your colleagues hopes and dreams you are investing yourself in their lives
There are both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for investing yourself in helping people to be their best. We find that when you help others be their best that we feel better about ourselves. I used to write a weekly column on leadership. I interviewed hundreds of leaders for that column and one of the standard questions I asked was “What is your proudest moment as a leader?” By far, the most frequent response I get is the satisfaction that comes from seeing others develop and move on to achieving great things. There is typically no direct financial reward for these leaders for that kind of success. However, by watching others succeed that they had invested in, they were able to know that their investment paid off. They could see the fruit of their effort.
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I also like Benjamin Disraeli’s statement, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him, his own.” I hope that you will consider whether you are being the kind of leader who is making a difference and helping those around you unlock their full potential.