A common myth about leadership is that a leader is responsible to “establish a compelling vision.” This is just not true. Many leaders step into an organization that already has a great vision, and they should not try to prove that they are a leader by cooking up some new vision.

Raise High the Vision

It is the leader’s job to make sure everyone understands why the business exists. Leaders aren’t required to come up with a great vision, but they are required to serve a great vision. Leaders who do not raise high a great purpose are throttling the contributions of the people who work for them. Human beings desire purpose. An organization’s vision must provide a compelling and noble reason for employees to care.

Vision

Leaders must raise vision high enough for everyone to have a direct sight line to it. Obviously, this demands that leaders communicate what the vision is—which we call Great Purpose. However, people respond to leaders’ actions more than to their words. Leaders must demonstrate the Great Purpose. This work not only includes communicating the vision to new employees, but also daily actions needed to reinforce the importance of the vision.

Great organizations are successful at getting their people to own the vision. As this happens, employees become more engaged and committed to doing their part to serve the Great Purpose.

Create and Sustain Urgency for the Vision

Too often, a vision statement is just words hung on a plaque in the lobby. To be effective, A Great Purpose must create and sustain urgency. Everyday frustrations demotivate people who don’t understand the value of the work they do. However, those who see the urgency of their work apply creativity and collaboration to overcome problems and to improve continuously.

How does a serving leader introduce a good kind of urgency into everyday work? Not by injecting fear and panic! Many supervisors use carrots and sticks to drive performance. Fear produces a short-lived and frightened commotion; fear does not produce a sustained and fearless concentration. Urgency, in service of greatness, comes from a completely different source.

First, serving leaders use important goals and milestones to help people see the progress being made toward the Great Purpose. The more people can personally track their progress on a daily basis, the better focus they have on the ultimate purpose being served for their customers.

Second, serving leaders focus on the positive. They look to catch people doing the right thing and promptly recognize and reward that behavior. And here’s a key: the best reward for a worker is the chance to see, first-hand, how the daily work serves the customer. Assembling a widget in the factory transforms into saving lives and serving people when the end user’s story gets back to the people who did the work.

Third, serving leaders understand the source of true and sustained urgency. Whether your people realize it or not, human beings desire to express purpose for their lives in the service of others. A powerful way to create sustained urgency into everyday work is to provide a compelling and emotional reason to care, a direct connection between the daily work and a heart of service.

Connect the Vision to Each Person’s Job


Work often feels meaningless, but this needn’t be the case. All work matters, whether that work is accomplished in boardrooms or boiler rooms. Many people come home every day from fast food restaurants and cleaning jobs feeling that their day counted. Conversely, many people come home each day from corporate offices and community service agencies feeling their day was a waste. And, of course, we all know that these last two sentences are equally true in the reverse.

A graduate student of mine once protested, “The minimum wage workers I hire to serve roast beef sandwiches are stuck in a menial industry. All I have are carrots and sticks!”

In other words, no full human engagement could be expected from these young men and women! If she wanted performance, it was going to be what I call “beatings and baubles” all the way to quittin’ time.

However, the industry-leading worker engagement scores received by Chick-fil-A refute my student’s protest. Serving a quick chicken sandwich shouldn’t be intrinsically more meaningful than serving a quick roast beef sandwich! And yet, the highly motivated young workers who tell their customers, “It’s my pleasure,” and appear to mean it, make a convincing case that work can be steered toward drudgery or delight.

There is no task, however seemingly noble, that cannot be rendered menial by stripping it of purpose. Conversely, there is no chore, however ordinary, that cannot be rendered meaningful by showing why it is crucial for the accomplishment of a Great Purpose. In either case – work that is experienced as menial versus work that is embraced as meaningful – leadership is responsible.

In The Serving Leader, Admiral Rock Butler tells Mike Wilson, “You were born to make a difference!” We must believe this about each person who works with us. If we believe that each person is born for purpose, it is our privilege to connect jobs with the organization’s Great Purpose helping our people to see what they do really makes a difference. No matter how “small” the job, work becomes meaningful when we understand how our part contributes to a great and worthy cause. Leadership is responsible to connect the dots.


John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at www.centerforservingleadership.com.

Photo by Jordan McQueen (unsplash.com)