What does my life mean? What am I doing here? Do I matter? Is there more to existence than consumption? Are we called to improve the lives of our fellow human beings? Are we called to take care of the earth? Is it really possible for one person to make a difference?
This “higher purpose” mentality sounds lofty, but it is actually the kind of thinking that is now driving some of the best human efforts on the planet, whether in business, science, the social sector, or entertainment. Make no mistake: meaning can be commoditised, just like toothpaste and cars. We would be amiss to imagine that the significance movement is altruistic at its core. But we would also be amiss to imagine that it is altogether insincere. More than ever, humans are waking up to the fact that they have the power to affect life, for better or worse. We’ve had several centuries of mostly worse. Now, many are choosing to do what they can for the better.
But do we really believe this? Do we really have faith that people want to build better workplaces, better neighbourhoods, better mousetraps, or better ministries? One manager of a Fortune 100 company described his dilemma as a leader:
“I know in my heart that when people are driving in to work that they’re not thinking, ‘How can I mess things up today? How can I give my boss a hard time?’ No one is driving here with that intent, but we (as leaders) then act as if we believed that. We’re afraid to give them any slack.”
Margaret Wheatley put it best when she said, “Most of us know that as people drive to work they’re wondering how they can get something done for the organisation despite the organisation—despite political craziness, the bureaucratic nightmares, the mindless procedures piled up in the way.”
Ben Zander, in his book, The Art of Possibility, claims that leaders often operate with the assumption that people don’t want to contribute; that they want us to do everything for them. Yet, from Bono’s One campaign to Arts for Aids to the Sustainable Energy Network, there is a new level of participation and individual commitment. Perhaps people are tired of being told there is nothing they can do. Perhaps they are tired of clogged bureaucracies. Instead, they are persistently and quietly organizing themselves—over the Internet, over coffee, over anything—because they want to make a difference. They are rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can because, well, they finally know that they can—without the help their employers or the institutions they attend.
There is no question that good-old fashioned narcissism still abounds. But the rising tide of activism is getting hard to ignore, and this time around, it seems to be more grassroots than ever and embracing several generations, not just one. What assumptions have you made as a leader about the people in your church, your ministry, and your community? Are people really just out for themselves? Do they really want us to do it all for them? How do we know? Have we tested that assumption lately? And if it’s true that many people really do want to make a difference, how will our leadership facilitate rather than exterminate that desire?
Great leadership believes great things about people and releases them to do the impossible.