What do we mean when we say leaders need to provide meaning? Let me share an example through an anecdote by John Girard which points to this absolute at an individual level and its implication for leadership.
"On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveler happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveler that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realizing that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveler moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveler delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stone cutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveler thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.
When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveler until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveler eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.”
In this example we immediately take note of the difference between the first worker who has no meaning for what they do beyond the immediate task at had which is cutting stones or the second who is there to earn a buck and we are drawn to the account of the third stone mason who demonstrates a grander vision that gives meaning to his work. This speaks to something that I believe resides in all of us that our lives have meaning not only in our personal lives and relationships but also in our work. This is crucial particularly when it comes to performance, after all which of the three would you hire?
This worker was gifted with an understanding of the meaning of his work but where did he get that meaning? The Bishop. Not all of us will immediately see the meaning to the work we do so it is something that good leaders must provide for their team or group. We have an innate need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Some in leadership will create the connection between the work and a greater good - for example Starbucks does not "just" sell coffee, they provide a social experience; a place for people to gather. Some companies tie the work with philanthropy by directing some of the profits and/or providing time for staff to volunteer toward causes of their choosing such as "Habitat for Humanity" or the "United Way."
As leaders we do this because we value our people. You communicate worth when you take the time to create a meaning in the work being done.
You will find that it helps to have your own meaning for what you do sorted out as well. For example, I do what I do because I believe that leadership though fraught with all manner of pitfalls and opportunities for failure can be an amazing experience that need not be terrifying or mundane. That leadership can be bigger than us and can be enjoyed and the more we enjoy it the more those we lead and work with will benefit.
Have you created meaning for your leadership, for your team? If not, why not?