You may have heard or read the story about the three bricklayers.
A short version: A person walking by a job site gets curious about what's happening, and asks three people working there what they are doing.
The first one responds, "I'm laying bricks." The second, "I'm making a wall." And the third, "I'm building a cathedral."
Usually, this story is told to emphasize the need for people doing work to focus on higher levels of meaning. The first bricklayer will measure the work done by how many bricks are laid well. The second will measure the work done by how effective, strong, and beautiful the wall is. And the third bricklayer will measure the work done by how inspiring and amazing the cathedral is.
The higher the focus by the worker, the better the result for everyone. Nice, eh?
Sadly, when I hear the story I hear symptoms of an organization in trouble. It may just be an occupational hazard, yet I start to think someone isn't doing their job.
It doesn't sound like they're running out of bricks, or have bad plans, or can't get along. So the manager running the job site is doing okay.
What I don't hear in this story is a leader who's stepped up to one of the most important roles a leader can have. I wonder if they have a leader who believes that workers are responsible to not only do the work but also to manufacture the meaning behind that work. That may sound a bit harsh, but when I see so many organizations suffering from people in leadership positions trying to manage others instead of leading, it hits me hard.
For instance, I am working with two companies right now - big, successful companies - where the person in the leadership position is essentially focusing on who's building what wall and how strong the columns are. These leaders are ensuring the workers are paid and held accountable for their work, yet are leaving meaning and motivation to the worker.
Don't get me wrong - someone needs to make sure we have a safe and sturdy structure. That's absolutely necessary, and yet completely insufficient.
Just getting the job done neglects one of the most vital roles a leader has: To help uncover meaning for each person in the organization. To raise everyone's sights - bricklayer, wall-maker, and cathedral-builder alike - so we can all make a difference by working together in the service of something greater than ourselves. To help everyone believe and feel that investing the majority of their waking hours in something is worth doing day in and day out.
Without overarching purpose, people will tend to focus on just what's in front of them and meet their (and their people's) own needs. That's predictable human nature. The beautiful thing is that organizations with effective leadership can rise above just surviving.
So, if in your organization you're seeing people blaming each other, avoiding conflict, and focusing on what seem to be the little things, you might need a leader to step up and start making a difference.
On the other hand, perhaps you have seen examples where a leader helps team members find meaning in their work. If so, please share in the comments.