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“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.” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

Innocent climb

Sports, life, and project management are analogous. There are lessons to be learned and applied in all facets. In this example, Pat Riley describes a team in the beginning. No one really knows each other. Some are more talented than others. Titles, positions, and roles are all different. Yet, one common goal exists.

In sports, it is to win a championship. In project management, it is to successfully complete a project on time and under budget. Riley calls this stage the Innocent Climb. Project managers may label this stage Forming and potentially Storming.

The innocence leads to little agreement and unclear purpose. Everyone knows the goal, but that seems so far away. How can this assembly of talent get to that point? Enter the coach. Riley starts to describe the Storming phase as conditions being right and working together for their common goal. Norming is right around the corner.

Roles become defined. In Riley’s case, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the focus of the offense. Everything ran through them. The same can be said about your teams. Even on a team full of superstars, roles must be defined and egos tempered. Strengths must be enhanced, and weaknesses built up.

“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.” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

 disease of me

Here is the part no one talks about in the team development stages. Ego and its negative impact on the team. The development stages end with Adjourning where tasks get complete, and recognition is divvied out. No one mentions the ‘Disease of Me’ that Riley talks about.

Instead of team success being the importance, individual success becomes paramount. Recognition for the team becomes ‘What about me?’ You start to see individuals working for themselves. In sports, statistics and box scores are highlighted. The number of points, rebounds, and assists you have is a priority over the win.

In project management, hours worked, arrival times, and say-so becomes tabulated. The person working the most hours must be putting in the most work. If you show up a few minutes late, that starts to bother people. Whoever influences project direction starts to feel important.

The team development stages dissolve into individual accolades which leads to successful franchises or dynasties collapsing.


“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.” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

Holiday lists some of the greatest teams in sports history. The 90’s Chicago Bulls and 00’s Los Angeles Lakers were dismantled over ego. Had they been able to stick together, their successes would have been unrivaled. Jordan won six championships while Shaq and Kobe combined for three. Those numbers are impressive, except for the fact they could have been greater.

Project managers tend to receive the most recognition if a project runs successfully. Because you are the lead, you must be the reason. This idea can latch onto your thinking process, and you start to feel special. If your projects are the best in the company, you must be the best project manager.

Now, you have put yourself on a pedestal. This mindset leads you into dangerous territory. Because of your success, no one can understand your difficulties, and the pressures you face every day. You are so special and unique, when in reality, you are no different.

This ‘Disease of Me’ causes your teams and projects to fail. The innocence is gone. This ego trip can happen to anyone. Someone on your team can start to think he or she is the reason for success not realizing the show goes on without him or her. Everyone is replaceable.

Whether it is sports, life, or project management, the ‘Disease of Me’ will creep in. It becomes your job to notice it and nip it in the bud. If not, your dynasty of a team has no shot at realizing its full potential.


Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

Contributing Author

Over the past 10 years, Chris Cook has spent his career in the construction industry. He has a Bachelor's of Science in Industrial Technology Management with an emphasis in Building Construction Management and Master's of Science in Project Management. He is an accredited PMP.

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Here are additional links to articles on this topic, both on our site and others.

  • The Disease of Me: It’s Just About… Life – CLICK HERE
  • The Disease of Me – CLICK HERE

  • VIDEO – Klay Thompson CONQUERS the DISEASE of “ME” – CLICK HERE

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