Team Success: Success Is Never a Solo Act

November 26, 2014

In the U.S. (the land of Manifest Destiny), we put a lot of emphasis on property and ownership. We want to know whose idea that was, who was there first, and who owns it now. While it’s a fun exercise to retrace the history and origins of ownership–“Thy shall not steal” from the Ten Commandments, Aristotle’s assertion that “when men own something in common it is least cared for,” Locke’s social contract, etc.–and it’s equally fun (and convenient) to celebrate the landmark achievements of specific individuals, something is lost when we do so. When Time put Charles Lindberg, Mahatma Gandhi,  Andy Grove, or Jeffrey P. Bezos on the cover as the Person of the Year, it mythologized the idea that those individuals stood alone. When Fortune makes Elon Musk, Angela Ahrendts, or Larry Page the Person of the Year, it would seem like the employees at Tesla (6,000), Burberry (9,000)  and Google (50,000) are merely along for the ride.

Success is never a solo act. It requires so many just for you to exist and grow.

According to Mel Robbins in her Tedx Talk in San Francisco, you had a 1 in 400 trillion chance of being born. Think about all the trials your ancestors went through–plagues, wars, and famines–and how many strokes of luck went their/your way. You could have been snuffed out by a sword fight, the Bubonic plague, or a fall down a well. Now think about how many chance encounters and deliberate ones came together for you to be conceived. A missed train or a glance in the wrong direction and, suddenly, you never happened.

Like people, ideas are born. And, like people, ideas are usually the product of good fortune, hard work, and a long list of contributors.  An idea in your head had its origin well before your synapses sparked the thought. Your language, mental models, processes, inspiration, and creativity came long before you. They helped give form to your idea.

The great leaders understand that their success is the product of others’ work, creativity, and dedication, not just their own. They know their success comes from people showing up for work even when their parents or children were sick, or when the snowplows created 9-foot snowbanks and they had to shovel their way out. These people persevered out of a sense of obligation to their dependents or out of a sense of moral duty even when their bosses made it difficult or nearly unbearable. And leaders don’t own the market on great ideas. Their success often hinges on their willingness to seek and listen to ideas from all levels of their organization.

Many in our culture believe in the Ayn Rand fairytale that there is a John Galt at the head of every successful organization, but that’s simply not true and it gives leaders too much credit. Leaders shouldn’t get the credit for people moving freighters or building great pyramids. They should get some credit, but certainly not all or even most. Often people achieve in spite of poor leadership.

Success is never a solo act, except in the imaginations of narcissists.

Recognize those that came before you and those who are with you now. And take a moment to think of the 30,000 people (all those many, many individuals) who built the great pyramid of Giza. They deserve to be recognized.



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