Does a Leader Have a Duty to Bring Meaning to the Work?

“The drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being,” wrote the late Dallas Willard 17 years ago in The Divine Conspiracy. “We were built to count, as water is made to run downhill. We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does. That is our destiny.”

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Willard was reflecting on the difference between egotism – that pathological self-obsession that anxiously and insistently demands to be the center of focus and attention – and the simpler, normal and universal human aspiration, built in, for significance. Willard understood, as do I, that the human person requires meaning. “You were born to make a difference!” These words were spoken by Admiral Rock Butler to Mike Wilson in The Serving Leader.

You, too, were born to make a difference, “you” being the reader of this blog, just now. I was. We were. Our life is intended to count.

One of our chief problems as human beings is our tendency toward familiarity. We get used to everything. Happenings, discoveries and realizations that are stunning and amazing – realities that are “awesome” in the sense that the word “awesome” was intended – become invisible to us, background noise, wallpaper. The word “awesome” itself becomes applicable to humdrum things, interchangeable in speech with the word, “okay.”

That a human being cannot tolerate meaninglessness – that from earliest childhood, we clamor to count – is just one of these awesome realities. Our jaw ought to drop when we consider it. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, observed that, “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Such a line could be written off as trite, but the reader who is tempted to do so would do well to know that Frankl was a slave laborer inside Auschwitz, was later transferred to a death-camp attached to Dachau, and lost his beloved wife, his beloved mother, and most of his family to the Nazi labor camps and the gas ovens.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live,” Frankl later wrote, “can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

This ought to stun us. Stop us in our tracks. Lift our heads and fill our lungs with air. We should be amazed, awed for sure, and humbled. The human person requires meaning. The most abundant of circumstances will not preserve us from death if nothing matters. Without purpose, we perish. And, conversely, the most horrific of circumstances may be borne, if there’s a reason.

But instead of being amazed by the human drive for significance, we stop noticing it. Life becomes routine, work becomes a paycheck – another day, another dollar – and the daily, sacred opportunities we encounter get turned into a managerial “should just.”

What do I mean by “should just?” This word choice – “should just” – may be one of the most frequent expressions I encounter in my work with managers and leaders. “Workers should just.” “They should just.” “My team should just.”

If I had the power to ban one word from the leader’s daily discourse, I might choose the word, “just” and all its diminutive cousins. It’s just. I’m just. You’re just. We’re just.

Now here’s the curious thing. We demand meaning. But we’re not good at finding it. We need it, but we don’t know where to look. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare this curious thing to our need for water; everybody needs a good drink every day, but most of us don’t know how to dig a proper well, or even where.

If you’re a leader or a manager, there are a few things I’d like you to take to heart.

  1. Your workers need to know why their work matters. You won’t get excellence, dedication, or drive from people who don’t have a ‘why.’
  2. Your workers are unlikely to provide their own sense of meaning or value. Some will, and you’re crazy lucky to have them! Most won’t. No amount of “they should just” will alter this fact. They won’t. They don’t know how.
  3. Do the math. You’re in charge. You are responsible for your people, and you are responsible for your results. Great results come from people who know that they count, who have a ‘why.’ And your people are unlikely to self-supply the why? So, who do you think has to do it?
  4. Yup! You.

That’s the math. Leaders have a duty to bring meaning to the work. It’s ridiculous that we don’t write this into the job description. It belongs there!

But do you know how to do this? Do you know how to bring meaning to the jobs that you ask people to do? I’ll speak to the “how” of this later this week, when I write again, but let me ask the question today: What example do you have of bringing meaning to somebody’s job? Share, please! What insight do you have about the process – the methodology, if you will – that we leaders can follow in attending to our duty to bring meaning to work?

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