What is your cathedral?

by Didier Marlier on Friday April 8th, 2016

In our book, “Engaging Leadership”, I relate to a story that was highly popular in the 80-90’s TQM circles:

“It was said that during the Middle-Age, a nobleman was walking down the place where a cathedral was being built. He was puzzled however by the differences in energy, quality and speed between the various stone carvers’ teams. Being curious from nature, he went to three of them and asked their supervisors what they were doing. In the slowest and most disengaged one, the head replied, obviously surprised by the stupid question: “Well don’t you see? We are carving stones here…” The wise man then went to another team that seemed to be more animated, people were talking to each other, they were laughing and more energetic than the previous one. To his question, the reply was: “We are building a wall here”. He finally walked towards the head of the fastest moving team. The feeling there was very different: everybody was doing something, each individual seemed to know what was expected and like ants or ballet dancers, all the people were moving and working seamlessly. When he asked the supervisor what he and his team were doing there, the eyes of the man lit up and on his face shun a large smile: “We are building the world’s most beautiful cathedral her!”

This story is supposed to have taken place during Europe’s Middle-Age and there are unfortunately no YouTube videos available from those days which would show the blatantly obvious difference in energy and passion between teams:

  • Low energy people, following the task & procedure: Individuals see their job as carving stones and their leaders seek to motivate them
  • Medium energy groups, mainly objectives driven: Teams are carving stones in order to build walls and their leaders try to mobilize them
  • High energy communities, who live and are inspired by an overarching Purpose: A whole organization is fulfilling a Higher Purpose. They share a dream and their leaders engage them.

Since the Middle-Age did not provide us with such clips, watch this story (with my apologies to those who saw the clip 2 1/2  years ago): In 2013, the President of the Turkish basketball team of Anadolu Efes decided to invite his stars  to a surprise celebration of their new title. These professional players were “invited” (just like in business life, when receiving an invitation of the C.E.O., one is well advised to enthusiastically accept it) to a classical music concert at the Opera, as a token of Presidential gratitude for the title they had just conquered.

Observe on the video, the body language of the players during the first part of the show: It matches the one of those carving stones in the previous metaphor; one can read a blend of embarrassment, anxiety or boredom. Their job is done; this is just the last, annoying, obligation before cashing-in and leaving for a well-deserved holiday.

And, suddenly, the stone-carvers turn into Cathedral builders: the rhythm of the music changes and the anthem of the team begins to play. All of the sudden the lights are switched on in the room and the players are surrounded by cheerful supporters of the club who came to thank them for the new title. Now this all makes sense. Look how the body language, posture, physiognomy and facial expression of the players radically changes. From disengaged and passive, their energy and enthusiasm are back… They are celebrating the Cathedral that they built.

Therefore my question to us all, business leaders: In all the messages that we send, do we spend enough time thinking and mentioning the Cathedral project which we invite our people to join or do we prodigiously bore them through our painstakingly detailed descriptions of how we would like them to carve stones? There may lay the reason for which some organizations seem moved by endless energy and passion, where others just follow the rules and ask to be told.

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4 Responses to “What is your cathedral?”

  1. Love the article and movie, it’s so obvious but not that obvious in the same time 🙂 !!! To build a cathedral, a team needs to be empowered in taking the ownership of their tasks. The main difference between a good and great leader is that the great one lets go, leaving his/her team the space where they can “play” and have fun while expressing their competencies with their own specific personalities. Not simple but possible!
    A great winning team that builds cathedrals can be represented by this simple formula: 1+1>2. A good team: 1+1=2 and a less of a good team: 1+1<2! Thank you for sharing your insights!

    • 😉 Thank you dear Frederik… I guess, the specialist in communication you are must see this quite often: How do we engage our people into our dream? How to connect the “construction of the cathedral” with their Pathos? Thank you for taking the time to read AND comment. Friendly regards

  2. Love the video Didier!

    • 😉 Thanks Jay, I found it so illustrative of the lack and full of energy when clarity isn’t/is given. Have a good week!!!


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