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We make a living by what we get.
We make a life by what we give.
– Winston Churchill
What is your legacy?
What do you want it to be?
It’s generally accepted that we are inspired when we contribute to a cause
greater than ourselves. The media is replete with stories of people inspired
and energized when they have made a difference in other people’s lives.
The cause to which one contributes may be different, of course, for each
individual. For example, for one of the authors of this article, the cause is
helping talented but at risk children from impoverished backgrounds find
new educational opportunities in the arts and sciences. For the other, the
mission is to help global business leaders create lives filled with vision, purpose,
There are other examples of how the call to work for the greater good
inspires people to do their best work and feel that they are living a life that
A Company President’s Surprising Legacy
Several years ago, a president of a biotechnology company was
reflecting with one of the authors about the type of work that deeply gratified
and inspired him. The president’s company had greatly expanded its market
share to become a leader in its industry. The president was also highly
regarded as a dynamic and successful leader. Because he was successful
and obviously fulfilled in his role as president and industry leader, it was a
surprise to hear him say:
“My biggest gratification comes from volunteering a few hours each month
on behalf of undernourished school children [in his developing country of
origin]. Our volunteer group provides children with regular and healthy
meals on school campuses. The impact of these simple meals on the
children’s health and subsequent classroom performance has been dramatic.
My greatest satisfaction has been in seeing what a difference this project has
made to children’s lives. It has also inspired me to put time into other projects
I know will immediately improve these children’s prospects.”
This president saw the direct link between nutrition and school performance
and the immediate impact his actions had on the education of these
impoverished students. It filled him with hope for their future. He was also
acutely aware that without their group’s efforts, the children would likely
languish. This is a personal example of how one individual found inspiration
in working for the greater good.
What Makes for a Great Place to Work
In a September 2000 Harris poll reported in Business Week, Americans were
asked to identify which of two propositions they agreed with:
1. “Corporations should only have one purpose – to make the most profit for
their shareholders – and pursuit of that goal will be best for America in
the long run.”
2. “Corporations should have more than one purpose. They should owe
something to their workers and the communities in which they operate,
and they should sometimes sacrifice some profit for the sake of making
things better for their workers and communities.”
The results were dramatic: 95% of the respondents aligned themselves
with the second proposition. In certain sectors of the business community,
corporate responsibility has, in fact, become a part of the business model.
(For example, the clothing company Patagonia puts aside 10 percent
of its profits for projects that support the environment). Employees and
their families are volunteering in their communities and want to see their
workplace making a difference to their communities by having their place of
work also investing money and volunteering time.
Some of us may be fortunate to work for a business whose mission is to
provide for the greater good. Even so, it is still easy to become consumed
by the mundane day-to-day details of our jobs and lose touch with the deeper
meaning of our work. Consequently, from time to time, employees need to be
reminded about the significance of their contributions.
Creating Technology That Saves Lives
This point is illustrated in the following story. A group of engineers that
produce defibrillating machines had become dispirited in the face of a
significant corporate reorganization: employees had been laid off and
projects disrupted. Consequently, employees had lost sight of the value of
their enterprise and morale was low. In response to the drop in morale,
the CEO invited a man with heart disease to meet his employees. The man
told them his story. He was traveling on a plane when he suddenly lost
consciousness. It turned out he’d had a heart attack and his heart had stopped.
A flight attendant quickly grabbed the company’s defibrillating machine
and successfully restarted his heart, making it possible for his to survive
the landing and subsequent trip to the hospital. After telling his story, the
man thanked the group for saving his life. Listening to the man’s dramatic
story and its positive outcome helped to reconnect the employees to the
significance of their work. They were given the inspirational boost they
needed to weather the corporate changes.
In this example, a corporate leader inspired his employees by showing them
how their work contributed to the greater good. It was done in a way that
communicated the company’s value in transforming lives. As a result, the
workforce was inspired to do their best work in achieving that mission.
As leaders, how do you find meaning in your work?
Do you know how your employees find meaning in theirs? How does your work and the
work of your employees contribute to the greater good? We can inspire our workforce by
finding ways to craft each individual’s jobs into a source of meaning through
their personal contributions.
This blog posting is from the first chapter of our book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008) written by Kristine MacKain, Ph.D. and Cedric Johnson, Ph.D