A European friend of mine recently interrogated me about Labor Day. "I guess," he concluded, "this proves Americans appreciate irony. Not working on Labor Day--that's pretty cool!"
His sense of humor aside, I always think that Labor Day--in contrast with the various May Day holidays celebrated in Europe--might be more meaningful if we thought about it as something other than the beginning of a new school year and end of summer vacations.
It's a useful day on which to contemplate how much we all depend on the labor of others, without which we really could do nothing. I'm talking about the food we buy that's grown, delivered, and sold by an army of farmers, truck drivers, and store assistants, the Internet we access because someone somewhere is minding the servers (as Andrew Blum has demonstrated, they're not in the "cloud" but mostly underground), and the garbage collectors who ensure we aren't sitting in a mess of our own making. Almost all labor is invisible, but we depend on it and would soon notice its absence.
What's ironic in this context, I believe, is that most business coverage focuses on the heroic soloists: the Steve Jobses, Mark Zuckerbergs, Martha Stewarts, Irene Rosenfelds, or even Julia Childs who single-handedly created huge companies or brands. Why is this myth so potent? We all know, if we take the time to think about it, that none of these people accomplished anything alone. Each needed moral support from friends and families, financial support from investors and backers, technical support from engineers, scientists, and accountants, and honest feedback from those brave enough to proffer it. The solitary heroic narrative disguises these stagehands, but they are always there and always necessary.
Great leaders know this, and many struggle (often ineffectively) against their own canonization. The most honest come to recognize their dependence on the gifts and talents of people around them and work hard to diffuse the applause. This isn't (or shouldn't be) just modesty. Great companies are built through collaboration, argument, debate, and dissent that take good ideas, test them, and stretch them. The most endangered leader is the one surrounded by sycophants and yes men and women; their ubiquity goes a long way toward explaining the series of banking fiascos we've witnessed over the past five years.
So this Labor Day, while you're not laboring (if you're so lucky), spare a thought for all those people, seen and unseen, known and anonymous, on whose work you depend. They're everywhere you go and inside everything you do. And most wouldn't mind the occasional thank-you.