BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME

 Chapter 16

BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME


If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I?

—HILLEL

There were great Allied generals of World War II—Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Zhukov—and then there was George Catlett Marshall Jr. Although all of them served their countries and fought and led bravely, one stands apart.

   Today, we see World War II as a clear fight in which good aligned selflessly against evil. The problem is that victory and the passage of time have obscured the all-too-humanness of the people who were on the right side of that fight. That is: we forget the politics, the backstabbing, the spotlight coveting, the posturing, the greed, and the ass-covering among the Allies. While the other generals protected their turf, fought with each other, and eagerly aspired to their place in history, that behavior was virtually absent in one man: General George Marshall.

   More impressively, Marshall quietly outpaced all of them with the magnitude of his accomplishments. What was his secret?

   Pat Riley, the famous coach and manager who led the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to multiple championships, says that great teams tend to follow a trajectory. When they start—before they have won—a team is innocent. If the conditions are right, they come together, they watch out for each other and work together toward their collective goal. This stage, he calls the “Innocent Climb 

   After a team starts to win and media attention begins, the simple bonds that joined the individuals together begin to fray. Players calculate their own importance. Chests swell. Frustrations emerge. Egos appear. The Innocent Climb, Pat Riley says, is almost always followed by the “Disease of Me.” It can “strike any winning team in any year and at any moment,” and does with alarming regularity.

   It’s Shaq and Kobe, unable to play together. It’s Jordan punching Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, and Will Perdue—his own team members. He punched people on his own team! It’s Enron employees plunging California into darkness for personal profit. It’s leaks to the media from a disgruntled executive hoping to scuttle a project he dislikes. It’s negging and every other intimidation tactic.

   For us, it’s beginning to think that we’re better, that we’re special, that our problems and experiences are so incredibly different from everyone else’s that no one could possibly understand. It’s an attitude that has sunk far better people, teams, and causes than ours.

   With General Marshall, who began his term as chief of staff of the U.S. Army on the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and served through the entire war, we see one of history’s few exceptions to this trend. Marshall somehow never caught the Disease of Me, and in many ways, often shamed it out of the people who did.

   It begins with his balanced relationship to rank, an obsession for most people in his line of work.

   He was not a man who abstained from every public show of rank or status. He insisted that the president call him General Marshall, not George, for example. (He earned it, right?) But while other generals regularly lobbied for promotions—General MacArthur advanced over other officers in the prewar years largely due to the aggressive efforts of his mother—Marshall actively discouraged it. When others began to push for Marshall to be chief of staff, he asked them to stop, because “[it] makes me conspicuous in the army. Too conspicuous in fact.” Later, he discouraged an effort by the House to pass a bill awarding him the rank of field marshal—not only because he thought the name Field Marshal Marshall would sound ridiculous, but because he didn’t want to outrank or hurt his mentor, General Pershing, who was near death and a constant source of advice and guidance.

   Can you imagine? In all these cases, his sense of honor meant turning down honors, and often letting them go to other people. Like any normal human being, he wanted them, only the right way. More important, he knew that, however nice they would have been to have, he could do without them while perhaps others could not. Ego needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.

   Early on in our careers, we may be able to make these sacrifices more easily. We can drop out of a prestigious college to start our own company. Or we can tolerate being looked over once in a while. Once we’ve “made it,“ the tendency is to switch to the mind-set of “getting what’s mine.” Now, all of a sudden awards and recognition matter—even though they weren’t what got us here. We need that money, that title, that media attention—not for the team or the cause, but for ourselves. Because we’ve earned it.

   Let’s make one thing clear: we never earn the right to be greedy or to pursue our interests at the expense of everyone else. To think otherwise is not only egotistical, it’s counterproductive.

   Marshall was tested on this to the extreme. A job he’d trained his whole life for was up for grabs: command of the troops on D-Day, essentially the largest coordinated invasion the world had ever seen. Roosevelt let it be known that it was Marshall’s if he wanted it. A general’s place in history is assured by his feats in battle, so even though Marshall was needed in Washington, Roosevelt wanted to give him the opportunity to take command. Marshall would have none of it. “The decision is yours, Mr. President; my wishes have nothing to do with the matter.” The role and the glory went to Eisenhower.

   It came to be that Eisenhower was, in fact, the best man for that job. He performed superbly and helped win the war. Would anything else have been worth the trade-off?

   Yet this is what we regularly refuse to do; our ego precludes serving any larger mission we’re a part of.

   What are we going to do? Let someone get one over on us?

   The writer Cheryl Strayed once told a young reader, “You’re becoming who you are going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole.” This is one of the most dangerous ironies of success—it can make us someone we never wanted to be in the first place. The Disease of Me can corrupt the most innocent climb.

   There was a general who treated Marshall poorly—essentially banishing him to some obscure postings in the middle of his career. Later, Marshall surpassed him and had his chance for revenge. Except—he didn’t take it. Because whatever the man’s flaws, Marshall saw that he was still of use and that the country would be worse off without him. What were the thanks for this quiet suppression of ego? Just another job well done—and not much more.

   The word for that is one we don’t use much anymore: magnanimous. It was good strategy too, of course, but mostly Marshall was gracious, forgiving, and magnanimous because it was right. According to observers as high up as President Truman, what separated Marshall from nearly everyone else in the military and politics is that “never did General Marshall think about himself.”

   There is another story of Marshall sitting for one of the many official portraits that was required of him. After appearing many times and patiently honoring the requests, Marshall was finally informed by the painter that he was finished and free to go. Marshall stood up and began to leave. “Don’t you want to see the painting?” the artist asked. “No, thank you,” Marshall said respectfully and left.

   Is that to say that managing your image isn’t important? Of course not. Early in your career, you’ll notice that you jump on every opportunity to do so. As you become more accomplished, you’ll realize that so much of it is a distraction from your work—time spent with reporters, with awards, and with marketing are time away from what you really care about.

   Who has time to look at a picture of himself? What’s the point?

   As his wife later observed, the people who saw George Marshall as simply modest or quiet missed what was special about the man. He had the same traits that everyone has—ego, self-interest, pride, dignity, ambition—but they were “tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness.”

   It doesn’t make you a bad person to want to be remembered. To want to make it to the top. To provide for yourself and your family. After all, that’s all part of the allure.

   There is a balance. Soccer coach Tony Adams expresses it well. Play for the name on the front of the jersey, he says, and they’ll remember the name on the back.

   When it comes to Marshall, the old idea that selflessness and integrity could be weaknesses or hold someone back are laughably disproven. Sure, some people might have trouble telling you much about him—but each and every one of them lives in a world he was largely responsible for shaping.

   The credit? Who cares.




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