a life is not important“Why don’t you take some time off?  You’ve been working hard.”

“If I’m not here, who else is going to make sure this place is running?”

This is a fallacy that many of us find ourselves believing.  Not only is it unhealthy because it can become a source of ‘bad stress’, but because at the end of the day, no matter how much you do, you are ultimately replaceable.  Eventually, we all get replaced and things still move forward.

Gordon R. Sullivan offered this advice to people that inflated their role in the book Leadership: The Warrior’s Art by Chris Kolenda; “When you are beginning to think you’re so important, make a fist and stick your arm into a bucket of water up to your wrist.  When you take it out, the hole you [leave] is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.”[1]

If you think that’s discouraging, here’s a cheeky perspective;

“If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.”

Think back to times in the military, and even in the civilian sector, when you’ve seen people come and go in your organization.  I can tell you from firsthand experience that it is sobering to realize that you hardly see a difference in how things are taken care of day-to-day as those people come and go.  It makes you question what impact you really have on things around you.

You’re saying, “Enough with that already, I get it, what I do today doesn’t matter tomorrow in the grand scheme of things”.  Wrong.  Well, yes and no.  I used to coin a phrase during situations when my coworkers and I working in aircraft maintenance production management would get too embroiled in work or too ‘ambitious’.  I would say, “There is no such thing as a maintenance hero”.  My point was that no matter how much we accomplished or how ‘on point’ things were, weeks down the road those accomplishments would be forgotten, like water flowing under a bridge.

What mattered was that we moved the ball down the field, moved the organization to a good position; there was no need to attempt to conquer the world in one day.  Those accomplishments are fleeting; you’ll face a different set of the same tasks or challenges the next day.  Strive to do great things, but you don’t need to beat up your people, waste resources, or stress yourself out every day to do that.  It is doubtful you will be remembered for what you’ve accomplished; rather, you are remembered for the impact you have on individuals.  If you are lucky, people will remember you for the impact you had on them and the great things you’ve done.  There are many people that I think about that I’ve encountered in my career that made an impact on me that were ‘just’ aircraft mechanics—and quite a few of them still are.  Their accomplishments may not have been broad and grand, but their impact on me was.  I often remember the personal characteristics of my former coworkers, not what we were doing when we were having a laugh or enjoying the camaraderie we shared.

I would argue that your leadership style, not your control over things or your managerial prowess, will be remembered.  That’s what creates enduring teams and builds connections.  What lasts are the impressions you leave people with.  Even if you don’t have a heart-to-heart discussion with a subordinate, how you conduct yourself and treat them leaves an impression.  People remember things like that.  We all have a 100 percent chance of death; it is likely that we will live on in the hearts and minds of the people that we love or those that we’ve made impressions on.  No one is truly remembered by their accomplishments alone—even those that have done great things in history have gained that legendary status because of the impact they made on others.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s Patton, the closing scene has General Patton and General Bradley walking through a quaint European village, discussing all they accomplished during the war.  Patton used an anecdote to illustrate an important point.  “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”[2]

[1]  Kolenda, C. D. (2001). Leadership: The Warrior’s Art. Carlisle, PA: Army War College Foundation Press.

[2] Francis Ford Coppola’s Patton, closing scene quote.

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