As we progress in our careers, it becomes easier and easier to gloss over the path we took to get where we are. We often romanticize our own personal journey, where our valleys become deep canyons and peaks become sky-splitting mountains. It’s only natural. Our human memories are flawed; each time we recount them, there’s a slight shift in what we remember versus how it occurred. Over time, we’re left with a somewhat-processed-but-not-entirely-fictional account of who we are and how we got there.
But even through all this mental editing, there’s something the greatest among us never forget: the efforts of everyone else that allowed them to succeed. The fact that they were taller, saw further, was because they rested on the shoulders of giants.
I came across an image of this cartoon that appeared in newspapers on July 21, 1969, a day after the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, during which Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, spoke those immortal words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The cartoon depicts Armstrong hoisting the American flag (with imagery fashioned after the famous Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima picture from WWII) on the surface of the moon, with the spiritual figures of the then-deceased crew of Apollo 1 helping him. That mission was the first manned mission of NASA’s Apollo program; the very same program that eventually succeeded in landing humans on the moon.
However, Apollo 1, never flew; a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test killed all three crew members (Chaffee, White, Grissom) in January of 1967. What followed was an intense period of introspection. There were countless procedure revamps, equipment redesigns, and unmanned tests during the 20-month suspension of manned spaceflight at NASA, following the disaster.
All this would eventually lead to the first successful launch of a manned mission for the Apollo program in October of 1968 with Apollo 7. And within a year of that, with Apollo 11, we humans would go on to become the only known sentient species in the universe to walk on a planetary body other than our own home world.
Why is this important? Because, if it weren’t for the sacrifices of all those who came before them, Armstrong and Aldrin would have never made it to the lunar surface. There would have been no giant leaps for mankind. No continuation of manned space flight, with aspirations higher and wider. No wide-eyed explorers looking to the cosmos, searching for our place in the universe. Those sacrifices served as fuel for human ingenuity that ran our intellectual engines strong and proud. Forced us to contend with our own mortality while creating safer and better ways to advance our civilization.
You see, every tiny bit of progress counts. Every effort that moves the needle the slightest bit, builds a stronger foundation for whoever, or whatever, comes next. And eventually, we succeed. But, we don’t do it alone. None of us do.
We often lose sight of this. I know I do. And I have to do a mental reset; a zoom-out to force perspective on who I am and what I am trying to achieve as a leader. And how I’m building atop the legacy of everyone that held that role before me, of everything my mentors and guides imparted on me, and alongside every single thing my folks are pouring their hearts and souls into.
All of this also says something broader than just a single individual’s success. It speaks similarly to the ability for effective leaders to build other people/teams up and propagate their abilities forth; a single CIO cannot implement an entire EHR system by his/her lonesome, or build out their org’s IT infrastructure while dealing with information security and operations on their own. There will always be a million important decisions, a thousand obstacles, a hundred pivotal initiatives. And it will take a lot more than you alone, no matter how effective you are as a single leader, to achieve it all for your organization.
As a successful leader, you’ll need to build coalitions. You’ll need to build effective teams. You’ll need to build foundations. You’ll need to build giants.
This piece was written by Saad Chaudry, Executive Director and Associate CIO at Anne Arundel Health System, a role he has held since July of 2017. Prior to that, he was Director of Healthcare Data Integration at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and served in various roles at provider and vendor organizations.