It may be arguable, but a leader’s critical mission is to instill meaning and purpose in his or her organization. Employees, clients and investors will readily respond. Readers of this article will learn how meaning and purpose can light up their organization.

Google the word “leader” and you’ll find that there are 264,000,000 hits; the word “leadership” has 155,000,000. Still, pundits continue to lament the lack of leadership.i

Instead of claiming to have authored yet another study in the midst of studies, we have attempted to synthesize and integrate the research about what makes for effective leaders. Out of this taxonomic work, we have identified five outcomes that leaders deliver, each woven around a role that a leader plays:

  • Strategist. Effective leaders develop a point of view about the future.
  • Executor. Effective leaders build the discipline of getting things done.
  • Talent manager. Effective leaders engage others in planning and executing their agenda.
  • Human capital developer. Effective leaders prepare the next generation of employees.
  • Personal proficiency. Effective leaders have personal skills and abilities that enable them to lead and others to follow.ii

These five leadership roles are characterized by behaviors and outcomes that apply to new and seasoned, junior and senior, and public and private sector leaders. If becoming a more effective leader is half DNA and half learning,iii mastering these five roles will help any leader be more effective.

While we have identified and taught the skills and actions associated with these five outcomes, we have recently identified another dimension of effective leadership. Leading in today’s uncertain, changing, and risky world is not just about the actions or motions of leadership; it is also about the e-motions.

The leader as a Meaning Maker

Motion focuses on behaviors and actions; emotion focuses on passion and meaning. Motion is what we do; emotion is why we do it. Motion gets things done while the leader is present; emotion sustains behavior in the leader’s absence. Leaders in motion differ from leaders who connect with emotion. The latter understand their role as what we call Meaning Makers.

For example, the United States has just experienced one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time, British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf Coast. BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, had an opportunity to be a meaning maker and to connect with people’s needs and frustrations, position his company’s response compassionately, and weave the story that would help employees and the public alike make sense of this devastation. Instead, he appeared to simply go through the motions, describing what happened and explaining the technical issues without addressing the impact that the spill had on the lives of people. In early media events he sat in a studio in a business suit and gave factual information about the spill, rationalizing that there was a shared legal responsibility for it. When Hayward took a beating from the press, President Obama and Congress, BP’s Danish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, flew to the disaster scene to come to his aid. But the chairman threw a match on the already bungled PR efforts when he expressed his desire to help the “small people” of the area. If all of this were not bad enough, Tony Hayward returned to the UK and entered a well-publicized yacht race. Nothing like returning home to enjoy Britain’s clean ocean air and water after destroying it in America.

These leaders may have done well at yachting, but they missed the boat on the importance of emotion and meaning. As a result, they completely lost the confidence of their stakeholders and the American public, resulting in about a 40 percent drop in their stock price, to the tune of U.S. $80B. BP went from being a well-respected company in a difficult industry to a company that may struggle to keep its best employees — unless the meaning of these events can be turned and the emotional impact addressed.

Unexpected disasters happen and create leadership havoc. But, when leaders respond to the disasters by going through the motions without showing sensitivity to the emotions involved, they miss an opportunity to have an important and lasting impact.

As we wobble out of the current economic recession, many leaders are confronting a lingering emotional recession among employees and customers. Leadership is a sterile exercise when leaders go through the motions of leadership without attending to emotion, the heart and soul of those they lead. For example, leaders may dutifully complete a strategic analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) that includes detailed plans to identify and serve customers in the future. But, when these plans focus on either overly abstract aspirations (vision, mission, and values) or overly dry analytics (data laden presentations) they remain uninspiring and virtually useless.

So, how can leaders bridge strategy and execution in a way that will promote sustainable growth? We believe that helping employees find meaning at work is a key. We have spent years exploring the question of how people create meaning in their personal and professional lives. Combining the insights of a psychologist (Wendy) and organization theorist (Dave), we have written The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win. In the book we attempt to synthesize volumes of thinking and research from many fields into seven disciplines or drivers of meaning. For example, leaders bring emotion and meaning to their strategic deliberations when they tell a story that captures imagination and passion, utilize employees’ strengths and values, connect today’s work to the world’s most pressing needs, and create a culture that will sustain people’s energy long-term.

People search for meaning at home, in relationships, in spiritual pursuits, or through hobbies. But most of us spend more of our waking hours at work than in any of these other endeavours. We suggest that work is a universal setting in which people can address their universal need for meaning. Leaders who are meaning makers are sensitive to this crucial human need, and they support and guide this meaning-making process. Data strongly suggest that meaning-rich employees create a synergy that leads to increased customer share and investor performance.

From going through the motions to living the meaning

Leaders who change their behaviour — who begin to infuse their organizations with emotion instead of going through the motions — create meaning for themselves and those they lead. When leadership actions smack of meaning, leadership roles evolve:

  • Strategist. Effective leaders develop a point of view about the future. Great leaders imbue sterile strategies with meaning through stories and symbols that embody key goals and engage employees’ imaginations. At the retailer Old Navy, strategies stagnated until leaders created a persona named Jenny, who represented the typical customer. Weaving strategic goals around meeting Jenny’s needs helped capture the essence of the strategy for employees at all levels in a dynamic way. The Jenny story and persona depicted the targeted customer clearly, what she wanted, and how Old Navy could connect their products and services to her interests. In a similar way, an insurance company gained great traction with claims adjustors when it stopped counting the number of claims processed and started talking about the claims as “helping people in need.” Real productivity increased as claims adjustors realized they could offer real help to customers with problems, rather than see them as boxes to be checked off or obstacles to profitability.
  • Executor. Effective leaders build the discipline of getting things done. Great leaders turn solid plans for execution into impassioned causes. At Zappos, Tony Hsieh is building a culture dedicated to delivering happiness to customers. This on-line shoe company so consistently exceeded customers’ expectations that it enticed Amazon to purchase it for US$1.2B. Employees at Zappos are encouraged to do something extra for their customers to ensure that they are happy about their experience. In one case, a customer received a bouquet of flowers the day after her order. Zappos doesn’t just offer better customer service incrementally; it goes over the top to make customers happy.
  • Talent manager. Effective leaders engage others in planning and fulfilling their agenda. Great leaders look for and value not only the competence and commitment of employees but also their willingness to contribute to the well being of others. On a flight last year, our departure was delayed by over an hour. Passengers were anxious about connections and irritated by the delay. The pilots and flight attendants hanging around at the gate were explaining to passengers why we were delayed and how people who were missing connections would be accommodated. This was an opportunity for the pilots to take the lead to demonstrate not only competence and commitment but to make a meaningful contribution to helping customers and fellow employees in a tense situation.Instead, the pilots began to complain not only about the delay but also about their pay and the airlines’ general lack of caring. Employees and customers alike ended up even more discouraged because of the pilots’ disparaging remarks. Apparently, neither the pilots nor their bosses were creating a sense of contributing at work.In contrast, on a recent flight we saw a passenger in a tie get up to help serve drinks and dinner. We asked him why and he said he was an officer of the company. Whenever he flew, he worked to experience what flight attendants experience and to connect with passengers. His service-minded work not only delighted grateful customers, but undoubtedly communicated support and commitment that would spread among employees. Engaged in the trenches with employees, he was in a position to be a meaning-maker and to truly lead.
  • Human capital developer. Effective leaders prepare the next generation of employees. Great leaders know that employees today are increasingly attracted to companies with a demonstrated commitment and capacity to do good in the world. The meaning they find in work is less about money or career trajectories (although these continue to be important) and more about mirroring employees’ personal values and responding to their desire for a sense of personal calling at work. When John Scully was recruited from Pepsi to become Apple’s CEO, it is said that the compelling question influencing his switch was, “Do you want to keep making sugar water, or do you want to change the world?” Employees at all levels are increasingly asking themselves similar questions, with similar results with respect to which companies they want to work for. When Ben of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream decided to step down from his position as the CEO of this highly socially responsible company, it ran a contest to replace him. Twenty thousand applicants got the chance to explain why they were qualified to lead Ben and Jerry’s. The winner got the job and the runner-up got free ice cream for life.
  • Personal proficiency. Effective leaders have personal skills and abilities that enable them to lead and make it easy for others to follow. Great leaders will bring not just their skills and abilities to the work setting, but their passion as well. As we were preparing for the launch of The Why of Work, we asked best-selling author and colleague Marshall Goldsmith for advice. Marshall jumped in to write the forward, offer endorsements, suggest key resources, send copies of the book to many of his clients and purchase even more to give away. Marshall lent us his skills and abilities because of his personal values and sincere desire to help. He joined our cause not because he had to but because he wanted to. The result? We want to reciprocate and help Marshall. Good will breeds reciprocity. Great leaders like Marshall use their skills and abilities to create benevolent circles (as opposed to vicious circles) that ignite positivity and energy in others.

The five roles of effective leaders, when filled with emotion, passion, and sensitivity to meaning, turn effective leaders into great ones. Such leaders build sustainable, admired organizations. These are the organizations employees want to work for, customers want to do business with, and investors want to support. Bringing emotion and meaning to the task of leadership infuses the motions of leadership with positive emotions to create organizations that are rich in meaning and in purpose, what we call abundant organizations.

Seven steps for becoming a Meaning Maker

To become meaning makers, leaders have to ask themselves seven questions and then determine how they can apply the answers to have an impact on those they lead.

  1. Who am I (Identity)? Build on strengths that strengthen others. People who identify and then use their strengths (values, skills, personal traits) in new and creative ways experience an increased sense of well being. A variety of lists can help us identify our personal strengths. Then we need to apply these strengths and values at work in creative ways. How can you use your skills and values creatively to strengthen others, while contributing to your sense of meaning? How can you help those you lead to do the same?
  2. Where am I going (purpose)? Determine the actions that matter most to you. Four actions that capture a lot of what motivates us are Achievement (goal accomplishment and successful competition), Insight (reflection, learning, and imagination), Connection (relationships and interpersonal interaction), and Empowerment (using our best skills in the service of empowering others to address humanity’s needs). What mix of these four actions feels most meaningful to you? How can a good work team find the right balance to meet its strategic objectives?
  3. Whom do I travel with (relationships)? Build high-relating teams as well as high-performing teams. People who have a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be highly satisfied with their job and twice as likely to be satisfied with their pay. Investing in good relationships at work pays off in a heightened sense of personal meaning, as well as in being good for business. How good are you at practicing, modeling, teaching, and supporting the four crucial skills for building positive relationships: making and receiving bids, managing proximity, managing the emotions around problem-solving, and making relationship repairs.
  4. How do I build a positive work environment (culture or routines)? Create a positive work environment. Cynicism-filled work environments abound. We’ve identified many elements of a positive culture, including humility, openness, unselfishness, positive routines, and accountability. What characteristics matter most to you? How can you embed them in the culture of your work setting?
  5. What challenges interest me (customize work)? Get engaged with challenges that you enjoy. The right challenge helps us live in the important space between excessive stress and boredom. But the type of challenge is also important. Understand which outcomes matter to you and those that you lead. Create a clear line of sight between what you do and what you care about most, and help others do the same. What are the work conditions that matter most to you and to each person you lead?
  6. How do I change, learn, and grow? Develop resilience and an openness to learning. Ask people to identify a highly meaningful experience at work and many will think of a time that they overcame a significant challenge or learned something new. We need to take certain risks to learn and succeed, and that means that we will sometimes fail. Can you develop resilience and learning so that blame and shame do not keep you or your company from growing?
  7. What delights me? Cultivate civility and delight. People don’t generally rank delight at the top of their list of factors that create meaning at work. But often, the difference between an intolerable job and a tolerable one is a tiny moment of feeling appreciated, noticing something beautiful, getting a kick out of a shared joke, or having a moment of playfulness. These are the icing on the cake of “meaningful” that, though small, can have a big impact. When work is unusually demanding and stressful, or when there is a need for high creativity and engagement, small displays of civility and delight help grease the skids and keep people going. What small acts of civility and delight are meaningful to you? How might you encourage such acts throughout the organization?

Great leaders explore meaning through these seven drivers for themselves, their work teams, and their organizations. In doing so they create abundant organizations that engage employees, meet the needs of customers, fulfill the expectations of investors, and contribute to the best interests of communities and humanity at large.

When leaders take their role as meaning makers seriously, they will face some new questions: What makes work either stressful or engaging, rote or rich with meaning for you? In either good times or hard times, where do you find meaning? What have good leaders done to help you find that sense of abundance, either sporadically or consistently, in what would otherwise be just a job? As a leader, how do you foster abundance and meaning for other people? Is this an agenda you care about? How do you think the story of your work and your life might become a legacy of meaning for you and for others?


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    Tim Ringo and Randy McDonald. IBM, Unlocking the DNA of the Adaptable Workforce. The Global Human Capital Study 2008.

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  2. Ulrich, Dave, Norm Smallwood, Kate Sweetman. The Leadership Code. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. 2009.
  3. In a symposium at Society and Industry and Organization Psychology, they presented a series of papers on whether leaders are born (DNA) or breed (learn). Their conclusion based on mega analysis of many studies was about 50/50. The symposium was entitled, “Leadership and Evolutionary Psychology” and presented at 21st Annual SIOP conference in Dallas 2006. Handouts are available from www.kaplandevries.com.