Nancy Dering Mock
Invoking Meaning: Now, More Than Ever, the Work of Leaders
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Many people struggle with mission statements, guiding principles and other corporate statements of purpose. The statements lose their oomph as organizations evolve, as the original purpose becomes blurred, or operational obsession sets in. The conversations can be more about "what is" than "why." People can be captured by the concrete, comparatively inconsequential, at the expense of more expansive and consequential deliberations.
But, most people yearn to be part of something important. The want to contribute to something that matters. They are compelled by hope, meaning, and purpose. The challenge to leaders is to invoke meaning and purpose in human enterprise. Here are four approaches:
Communicate Purpose Widely: Leaders should not assume that their people know and understand the vision and purpose for the organization. This means making sure that the purpose and the "why" are not merely "words in calligraphy" on the wall, but statements that are woven through the fabric of the organization: on social media, on meeting agendas, on marketing materials. It also means linking critical conversations like goal-setting, performance reviews and recognition to the purpose and why it is important.
Balance Pragmatism with Idealism: We are more familiar in the workplace with metrics, data and the bottom line. Yes, these are important. But the pragmatic side of human enterprise inspires only some people. Others yearn for the satisfaction that comes from making a difference. Still others are inspired by hope for a better future. And still others are compelled by creating something of enduring value, something that matters. Leaders are challenged to balance both the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Use the Language of Meaning: Leaders may not ordinarily use the words, "meaning," "hope," "aspirations," and "value;" but these are the language of significance, of things that inspire and compel others. Leaders need to think about how to infuse words that convey the very best of the human experience - joy, gratitude, sacrifice, generosity, curiosity - into their leadership vocabulary.
Explore Possibility: Overemphasis on "what is" can impede people's imagination. Leaders are challenged to include equal measure of "what if." Employees' gifts are often unleashed if they are asked "meta" questions: Why not? Since when? Who says? Leaders who understand the importance of invoking meaning understand the importance of calling forth the imagination, curiosity and ingenuity of their teams.
People yearn to be part of something important and to contribute to something of value and meaning. Leadership entails tapping into that yearning: instilling purpose, idealism, meaning and possibility in their organizations.
Have you observed organizations where the original purpose became blurred? How did that happen?
Describe your experience with corporate mission statements.
Have you worked with leaders who are adept at invoking meaning and significance? How did they do it?
What are the implications for leaders? For you?