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Great Leaders Find and Create Meaning

Great Leaders Find and Create Meaning

In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith, reported on research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicating that the health benefits of meaningful activity outweigh the health benefits of happiness.

Common wisdom suggests that happy people are healthier than sad or angry people. However, this research suggests that people who are involved in meaningful and productive activities are not only more satisfied, but they are also healthier. As they examined biological factors related to stress-related gene patterns, researchers found that people who were “giving” were less likely to experience patterns associated with adversity than were happy people involved primarily in what they call “empty positive emotions.”

Smith concluded by saying: “From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”

This led me to wonder about a leader’s role in finding and conveying meaning. If meaning is essential to ones being, as this research suggests, what part do leaders play in promoting a sense of purpose and consequence not only for themselves but for people they lead and with whom they work. More importantly, how do leaders convey meaning?

It is relatively easy to determine why conveying a sense of meaning benefits a leader and an organization. Individuals who have passion or recognize that they make a difference are more committed to their work. They are willing to go the extra mile for clients or customers. They are more likely to remain in their positions, which reduces employee turnover. They are more willing to work hard for the business or organization, and all this affects the bottom line.

It is a little more difficult to discern how leaders sometimes interfere with a sense of meaning. They may focus primarily on what people do and forget to examine why they do it. They do not provide support for employee creativity or risk-taking. They frequently change their goals or their processes. They set unattainable or unrealistic goals, or they do not clearly state the goals in terms of the value they have for individuals or society. Even worse, they do not establish or clearly state the goals, vision or mission of the organization.

It is more difficult to determine how leaders can convey meaning, which I propose is often at the heart of great leadership. As leaders find meaning in their own work, their ability to share meaning with others promotes a community of individuals willing and eager to follow them and to accomplish the goals of the group or organization.

Leaders create and convey meaning when they focus on the following:

  • A clear understanding of mission.
  • A real sense of the values guiding all decisions.
  • A desire and willingness to promote trust within and toward the organization.
  • A continuous desire and commitment to interact with and promote others.
  • An on-going plan to communicate the value of the product, service or organization.
  • Reflection on the day-to-day activities and how they are aligned with the desired goals and mission of the organization.
  • Willingness to give up short-term wins for the benefit of individuals or members of the community.

Amabile and Kramer, who studied the importance of meaningful work, and reinforced the need for leaders to bring meaning to their organizations, stated that their research “showed that most executives don’t understand the power of progress in meaningful work.” They stated that [leaders] are “in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within [their] organization[s].”  They suggest that bringing that meaning to others gives leaders greater meaning.  Not only is finding meaning good for an organization, it is good for the leader.

What other benefits do you see for meaningful work? How do you or other leaders find and convey meaning in your groups or organizations?

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