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We are Links in a Chain

By Noah Nuer, Chairman, LaL

A CEO who was attending the first seminar in our 4-Mastery program shared with me his quandary: Over the course of his career, he had worked with many outstanding individual contributors, but he wasn’t sure he was ever part of a real team. In other words, his teams had always been weaker than the sum of their parts, and being a businessman, he lamented the ROI on those high salaries. But since he was launching a new organization, he felt this was a chance to create something different from the ground up.

“Where do you think I’ve gone wrong?” he asked me. “Well,” I responded, “What is most valued in your environment?” Being the absolute best at one’s job, better than anyone else, in fact, he proudly explained. So I got even more curious: “Do you think people on your team are usually jockeying for your attention and recognition? Could their main goal be to become absolutely better than every other team member – to be the star?” From his silent smirk, I could swear he wanted to answer: “Of course, don’t we all want to be the star?” But I could also sense he had to ponder that.

As we got further into the Personal Mastery seminar, he came back to me and said, “One of my problems is that my team members all have had huge egos and therefore can’t work as a team, but my biggest problem is that I have an even bigger ego. I guess I am responsible for this environment of internal competition.”

He was on to something important. How can a group of people support and complement each other when each member is a “threat” to the others and when shining above the rest of the team members takes priority over a collective goal?

This is the “star system”, the default system all around us. We revere star athletes, we only listen to the wisdom of “successful” business people, we envy movie stars. We all secretly dream to be looked up to, to be famous and admired. We want to be the most wanted friend, the best parent, the exceptional leader. We want our boss to recognize us in front of everyone, and we want our spouses to say we’re the most amazing partner that exists on earth. Presented like that, it seems a little extreme. But is it?

How come this star system feels so natural to us and is so prevalent in our society? The answer is probably habit. We all grew up in this environment. From an early age, our grades are compared to others’ and we get special attention when we’re better than others. We know it’s a race to get into the most selective schools, to be hired for the most interesting jobs, to win the promotions that colleagues don’t get. Success has meant beating other people. And our goal has been to be up there and shine…like a star.

Now, in theory, the sky is big and we could all be stars shining up there in unison. And each of our lights could feed other people’s lights to shine even stronger. And maybe that is a framework worth exploring at some point because competition has its merits too in a specific environment. For most of us, however, we breed competition in its simplest form and create an environment filled with stress, distrust and anxiety where others are a threat. It’s a context that kills joy, creativity and support.

Somehow, we should know better. People who access this star status often share the void and loneliness that goes with it. Many celebrities are also famous for their drug or alcohol abuse. And those of us on this treadmill often feel a need to compensate compulsively.

And we’re not the only victims of this system. Our kids try to play by these rules too and cope however they can. They are not immune to feeling isolated, alienated, depressed, stressed and tempted to “medicate” with substance abuse. They too just need to take the edge off.

Thankfully this is not the only paradigm that exists. We can create a different space that is supportive and safe for us. One that I find particularly helpful comes from the late Claire Nuer, my mother and LaL co-founder. She would always remind us at the office that we were a “link in the chain”. In a necklace, no link is the star but every single link is completely essential. If one link is missing, the necklace falls apart. No link is so important that we stop caring about the other links. We are all essential and special in creating something unique together. We are links in a chain.

Like everyone, Claire was prone to reverting to the prevailing star system. For that reason, she wore a bracelet that was a little noisy, and when she would get agitated, its sound would remind her that she and the people around her were links in the chain, together.

I shared that concept with the CEO I mentioned earlier. He had access to a plethora of candidates who were bright, efficient and talented – among the best, in fact, at what they do. He knew that in the past he had focused most on what he referred to as the “trappings of resumés”, i.e. selecting candidates based on the most prestigious schools and shiniest awards. But now, with his newfound awareness, if you wanted to be on his team, you would also have to show how you were conscious of your ego, and how you would be able to put it on the sidelines when it mattered most – instead of pursuing star status above all else.

Like him, you can now start shifting your own thinking: Think of yourself as a link in the chain. As someone essential but part of a larger purpose. And when you start comparing yourself to others or if you start treating others as threats or tools, remember they are also links in the chain.

Be a different leader and create a different workplace. Do it for you and do it for your kids. Teach them that we are all just fallible human beings. Teach them that when we come together and see each other as links in the chain, not only can we achieve amazing accomplishments, we can also truly enjoy the path together.

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