Am I a stone carver or a Cathedral builder?


Didier Marlier

May 02, 2019

From Disruption to Engagement

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I work a lot with the themes of Purpose and Deep Intent. A few days ago, I came across a very interesting Cassie Werber’s article dedicated to the same topic.

Putting the record straight, INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri claims that, if it is fundamental to give meaning to our work, we shouldn’t expect anybody else to do it for us: This is our duty as worker, manager, leader and, would I add, as wife, husband, mother and father (as we bring our work frustration and dissatisfaction home!)

Why is Meaning so important to work? I mentioned in a blogpost in 2016, the metaphor of the stone carvers and cathedral builders. The story tells of a noble man, in the Middle Age, walking across the busy site where a cathedral was being erected. He notices a bunch of people carving stones. Their energy is low, they work mechanically, without looking at each other and their body posture betrays boredom and servility. He asks them what they do and they reply, without surprise, “We are carving stones my Lord”. Little after he comes across another team, doing exactly the same work and what strikes him is their energy, the fact they clearly work , learn, suffer and succeed together as a team. There is joy and laughter. Curious to understand why such a difference, he asks them the same question and, with passion and fire in their eyes, they respond “My Lord we are building a cathedral!!!” Are your people stone carvers or a cathedral builders?

I hear some say: “But you can’t find Meaning in any sort of work”… Really? In my early 20’s after successfully passing my first year in Law School (8th out of 500), my father died and his businesses were bankrupt. I took a job, morally and physically dirtying. Indeed there was very little morality, leave aside Meaning, to be derived from it but that job, whatever it was, was saving my mother and sisters. So it meant a lot to me. I graduated a few years later and my family was on the safe side. Can you find a worthy Meaning in “cleaning up animal feces, chopping vegetables, and scrubbing floors”? In a 2009 study, in 157 zoos of Canada and USA, Professors Bunderson & Thomson found out that the 900+ zookeepers interviewed saw their job as a sacred mission and “couldn’t think what would cause them to leave”. Remember NASA’s enthusiastic janitor’s reply to President Kennedy, asking what his job was: “I am sending a man to the Moon!”

When you know that, in 2013, a Gallup survey, quoted in the article, found out that out of the 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries interviewed, 63% were not engaged in their work, it gives you an idea of the wealth lost in terms of initiative, extra-mile, engagement and image for Business. Meaning at work is no nice to have, it is the Mother of all battles which leaders need to go after, even though, Meaning doesn’t come through edict nor communication.

So, if Meaning is mainly a personal duty, is there nothing we, as Business Leaders can do to create the right conditions for our people to look and find their Meaning in the work they do?

It is part of the work we do when talking about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And I also found excellent this relatively short TED talk (8’) of Barry Schwarz:

In a few words, Cassie Werber summarizes it all:

“When we talk about “meaningful work,” what do we actually mean? Negotiating peace treaties, growing food, making spectacular amounts of money—all of these can be framed as meaningful, depending on who is doing the framing, and what it is they truly want. Meaning isn’t something to be found, and it can’t be uncovered by heartfelt commitment, long hours, and self-sacrifice. Meaning is something we make!”

Leadership is an art… Enjoy your leadership Journey


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