These words may ring true to you right now. “I don’t want to be just a cog in the machine.” I recall thinking that, and probably even said it out loud to my friends, when I left my corporate job to start my own business. I was done being just a cog.

Recently, I realized something powerful that changed my outlook on everything. In any organization with influential leaders, there’s no such thing as “just a” cog. Yes, there are cogs, but each one is essential – and they know it.

Here’s what I mean…

Let’s start by defining the concept behind a cog. A cog is just a gear, or a wheel with teeth. Put two cogs or gears together, and their teeth fit correctly, they turn one another. When one gear turns, the other does at the same time. Put more than two of them together in a row, say four or five, and you create a gear train where many cogs can work in tandem to do a job.

Now let’s put a spin on that…

Say there are five cogs in a row working together, and the teeth on the middle gear break. Maybe that middle cog gets loose and is no longer working in tandem with the other cogs. Or, what if the teeth never fit correctly in the first place, causing the gears to slip rather than work with one another? 

When that middle gear quits working, the whole machine suffers. If those cogs are the gears in a vintage watch, it no longer tells time. If the gears start to slip in your car, you’ll sacrifice performance or possibly find yourself on the side of the road. 

Those cogs are way more important than we give them credit for, even the smallest ones. That’s something else to consider about these gears… they’re not all the same size. Some are bigger, and some have many more teeth. They’re all different, but at the end of the day, regardless of their size or makeup, each cog is equally essential. No one cog can accomplish anything alone. They need one another – they move together, or they don’t move at all. 

Where am I headed with all of this? 

Now that I own a business, I see all those cogs through a very different lens. There are no “just a” cogs. Each cog – or better put, each person on any team – is a valued, essential piece of the larger machine. Good leaders understand that every cog matters. When one of those cogs is broken, off-kilter, or performs below what’s expected, the whole team feels it. If all of the cogs aren’t cared for and maintained, it limits the entire machine’s potential. On a team, those cogs aren’t hard and metallic. They’re human and need to be fostered.

The Takeaway

Great teams are made up of great cogs – great humans. Be a great cog. No matter how big or small you feel, focus on your role and the contribution you have to make every day. If you’re a leader, see the value in each of your cogs. Get to know the people on your team, invest in them, and care for them. And for all of us, remember there’s no “just a” cog. Each of us is valuable, and success requires the contribution of all, not some.