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The job of a leader: bringing meaning to work

Earlier this year, I went to a college reunion dinner. Between the Latin grace and the loyal toast, I talked to as many of my old chums as I could. They had gone into many different careers: industry, the law, the military, teaching…

But there was one thing that we all seemed to have in common.

Everyone lamented that they were too busy. No matter which field they were in; no matter how senior they were. They felt under constant pressure, and they lacked any time to recuperate and reflect.

Back when I was at uni, we all thought that the big challenge of the future would be too much leisure time. Hah! We hope for a slower day and it never arrives. We often can’t get to the big things for all the little things in the way. We feel pulled in different directions. We gradually sacrifice fitness and hobbies and even friends and family in a constant attempt to cope with it all.

This is obviously exhausting in the long run. We put our health and relationships at risk. I had to grin ruefully at the following social media post a while back:

“I deal with the stress by catching a cold, turning it into bronchitis and then having it linger for 3-4 weeks. That way, I’m overworked but at least I’ve got a hacking cough and body aches for a month…”

There’s no magic wand here. Mercifully, productive hard work can be tiring but not necessarily stressful. The real villains lie in short-term fixes, miscommunication, boondoggles, busy-work, presenteeism…

It suggests a different role for managers and leaders: not to keep people busy, but to give them meaning. To focus on the team’s energy and spirit rather than constant throughput. To tune the engine rather than flogging it. That’s hardly a new idea although it’s still a rarity in many teams. Probably because most senior people face exactly the same pressures.

So how can good bosses bring meaning and clarity?  Here are six simple stories we should be uncovering and telling. Leaders are storytellers, after all. Indeed, managers at all levels need to be able to tell these stories as they relate to their own audiences:

1. The customer story: Who our potential customers are and why they turn to us.

2. The skill story: How we take unique approaches or bring expert skills to what we do.

3. The money story: How our financial engine works.

4. The progress story: How well we’re doing and how we’re going to improve further.

5. The culture story: The values we share and how we work together.

6. The bigger picture story: Why what we do matters.

I’ve seen leaders and managers who don’t get this, even well-meaning ones, and their teams are like living prisons.

By contrast, I have worked with (and for) people who DO get it. They tell these stories and they build a sense of identity and energy and capability into their teams. Everyone still works hard but they work with more purpose.

It’s not always easy to uncover these stories. It can take a bit of anthropology to look beyond the activities and procedures and ferret out what the real purpose of our work is. Yet when you find the underlying stories, they’re clear and simple and true.

A great leader makes sure that the stories stay clear and simple and true, by telling them again and again. They help us to recall what’s important, so we bring more meaning to work, and maybe even discover (wonder of wonders) what we could stop doing.

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