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 of who preceded us and helped us along the way.
Are We Independent or Interdependent?
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. He said, “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 over 85 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 positive aspects of these ideas, we sometimes fail to understand their 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 fencepost. As the story goes, when you find a turtle on top of a fencepost, “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 reality, our success in life is linked to the lives of other people (whether we recognize it or not). There is a great expression that 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.
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 urgent 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.
I have experienced the benefits of others investing in my life first hand. 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 knew 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. Two people helped me better understand my motivations, clarify my path, and make this next step in my career. One was Dr. Carl Hicks. Carl 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 motivators 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.
I also was encouraged by my friend and colleague Andy Wimberly. Andy made a successful transition from being a well-established financial advisor to an executive coach. As he says, “it took me 15 years to become an overnight success as a coach,” but his example and encouragement reinforced my confidence. Both Andy and Carl reached out and helped me help myself. They challenged me and created accountability. They would not let me just “talk the talk” about change, I had to “walk the walk.” They shared and continue to share their wisdom and life experiences with me. I use the examples of Carl and Andy to illustrate the point that there is a significant impact of helping others be their best.
There are both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for investing yourself in helping people to be their best. You will find that when you help others elevate that you feel better about yourself. I write a weekly column on leadership. I have interviewed hundreds of leaders for this column and one of the standard questions I ask is “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 efforts.
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and 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 elevating others to help them reach full potential.