Last in a 7-part series: Let’s Be Frank about Spirit and Meaning

(Links below to previous installments)

That greener grass on the other side of the fence often turns out to be spray painted. Frank had broken through his “trapped emptiness.” He had a renewed sense of hope and purpose. He was energized. Life was worth living.

Through the difficult, on-and-off discussions he and Deb continued to hold, Frank realized that quitting his job and moving to that small festival theater town was an escape. Deb and the kids were quite happy to stay put. With lots more work and trust building, they just might be able to save their marriage. They both agreed it was worth the effort. As Deb said one night, “We could move to another house or take other jobs, but our problems would hitch themselves to the moving van and move in with us.”

Frank also came to realize how much he loved and believed in the products and services his company provided. They were making a difference in the lives of thousands of people. If they didn’t keep quality and service levels high, planes and computer systems could crash. Hospital operating rooms could go dark. Cars could malfunction. Factories could lose production and become less efficient.

Somehow everyone had lost sight of that. The focus was on daily production, sales volumes, cost containment, budgets, and the like. That was important, but it didn’t go deep enough. A budget doesn’t tug at the heartstrings (although missing budget targets can cause some managers to rip hearts out). Business plans don’t touch the soul.

Frank knew that only people connecting with people could provide that deep and satisfying sense of meaning. He worked hard to help his team reconnect with the sense of purpose and meaning that Frank now felt. They focused on customers and how the organization’s products and services impacted their lives. He encouraged many people to get out and visit customers to understand the impact of their company’s products and services. He brought many customers into meeting and planning sessions to discuss how they were using the company’s products and services.

Frank reconnected his team with their vision, values, and purpose. He continually referred to them during meetings and planning sessions. He built appreciation, recognition, and celebrations around them. He linked hiring and promotions to them. He even helped the company expand its leadership development programs to include role descriptions, personal feedback, and coaching on how to strengthen spirit and meaning. Frank and his team had a long way to go, but they were starting to reconnect and touch hearts. The joy of work and life was breaking through the clouds.

In our organization and team development work at The Clemmer Group, we often bring groups of people together to get their perspectives on strengths and weaknesses, improvement opportunities, and the like. One morning, I asked a group of very quiet production and service people a series of these questions. Crickets. Nobody responded. This was going nowhere fast. Finally, one grizzled veteran sitting at the back of the room with his arms folded said, “Jim, I think you’re confusing us with people who care.”

Assuming we care (if not, we’re in the wrong job), the leadership challenge — even obligation — is to help others care. In today’s environment, this is one of the toughest aspects of leadership. Partially that stems from the widespread “Victimitis Virus” — frustrated people recruiting riders on the bitter bus heading down Hopefulness Highway into Pity City. Cynicism runs wild today as popular cartoon strips, memes, and social media use dark humor to spotlight the negative sides of organizational life and feature managers as bumbling idiots.

Many organizational cultures are infected with a lack of meaning and emptiness. The Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” are symptoms of heartless leadership. Building “magnet cultures” that attract, retain, and engage top people is an inside job. Heart-to-heart leadership involves aligning the personal purpose and values of people with the team or organization’s deeper reason for being. As Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith state in their book, Learning to Lead, “an essential factor in leadership is the ability to influence and organize meaning.”

We tried to articulate that loving feeling when Heather and I founded The Clemmer Group through this statement; “We’re here to make the world a better place. Our overarching purpose is to make a difference in each other’s lives and in the lives of those we serve. We maintain a healthy bottom line to provide financial strength and stability, but money isn’t our primary focus. We know that if we serve our customers well and manage our business effectively, profits will be our reward.”

Queen bees give off a chemical substance that keeps the hive together. It has been called “the spirit of the hive.” Few leaders can sit around strictly as queen bees, although it is a tempting thought. Leaders need to be worker bees as well. It’s a balance issue.

As we contribute our work to our team or organization, we also need to contribute a sense of meaning or purpose. Regardless of our formal role, we need to help build the spirit of the team. This leadership comes from our own center. I can only contribute the spirit and meaning that I feel. I need to lead with all my heart and soul.

Let’s Be Frank about Spirit and Meaning Series