The Awards Night – Mark Leheney

It was another rite of passage: Sitting in a high-school auditorium for the awards night before graduation. A parade of wonderful young people being honored for achievements and successes. It makes you optimistic for the future.

But one thing really stood out – jumped out – as a counter-cultural, I would say practically subversive theme. To understand it, and what it means for leadership, we first have to step back and look at the terrain in which many of our organizations are operating.

Increasingly, it appears to me that that ethos at work, our workplace culture, is about self-advancement and self-promotion. Jockeying for the verbal advantage in meetings, subtle or overt put-downs of those with other perspectives, the fight for the next promotion, the lack of true team consciousness as individuals come together and wind up in gridlock as they advocate for their own, individual interests.

I describe this as the crisis of the “I” story. (The “We” story is about connecting with others. The “It” story is about what needs to be done.)

Your own experience may vary. You see what you see, and if your view is more sanguine, then enjoy. You’re in a good place. What I see and hear too often in talking with people in workplaces all over is the late-stage moral decay; the logical, ultimate extension of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Capitalism and competition are great, but they are incomplete. Left unchecked, you don’t hear what I heard at the awards night. Here’s what the speakers kept saying about the recipients.

“He helped others who needed help.”

“She always had time for others.”

“He thought first about others.”

“She brought people together.”

“He helped people come to agreement.”

And on and on.

The objects in I think every case were “others.” The whole point, the focus of the excellence was toward others. Not the self, not the resume, not the accomplishments. It was about how this award-winner built something larger than him or her.

Think about your day. Your week. Your career. When you engage in action, which story are you living in? And as Dr. Phil asks: “How’s that working for you?”

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