Some people understand personal significance; many do not. As part of our work, Legitimate Leadership consultants ask people to identify and reflect on the person they most admire. Let me ask you to do the same.
From the answer to this question, two observations emerge.
First, even in South Africa, Nelson Mandela does not emerge as the most often-cited hero. The person identified most often, our personal “Person Of My Lifetime”, is “My Mum” (sorry dads, collectively we’re just too frequently absent).
Second, and perhaps more interestingly, are the reasons we find these exceptional individuals – whether My Mum, My First Boss or Nelson Mandela – so admirable, compelling and significant.
She sacrificed everything so that I could go to school, and never asked anything in return.
He taught me that I could achieve anything, provided I never gave up.
He got me through matric, even when everyone else had given up on me.
He showed a whole nation how to rise above hatred.
Or (in my hero’s case) he invented the world wide web.
What do all of these reasons have in common? Each describes someone who has sacrificed, taught, guided, role-modelled. In short, someone who has given; who has made a meaningful contribution.
Popular culture is apparently actively trying to turn this on its head. Magazines, internet sites and television marketing indicate that significance is all about fame, status and accumulation.
But is that real significance? Will your children love you more if you drive a Bentley? Do you worry about whether that teacher who got you through school lives in a big fancy house? Do you admire your colleagues more if they go on expensive holidays?
The simple answer is “no”. It’s not that people who drive Bentleys have children who love them less, it’s simply that it literally doesn’t matter. Once we have broken through the veneer created by consumerism and clever marketing, what people have or don’t have simply doesn’t cause them to be significant or not. Why? Because true significance has nothing to do with what you have got, and everything to do with what you have given, what you are giving, and what you will give in the future.
What does this mean in the workplace?
In the first place, giving at work means doing the tasks that make up your job well – doing “a good job”.
So, can doing a good job make you significant? Yes, somewhat, but not fully. If that is what you’re aiming for, then I believe you’re selling yourself short.
We think of significance as it relates to five forms of giving.
Task Excellence is about executing the core parts of your job – the tasks you are paid to do – really, really well. Not just trying hard, but aiming to be the very best at what you do. If you’re an accountant, this would mean never (or barely ever) making mistakes in the accounts; if you’re in production, exceeding your quality and production targets every time.
Passion is contagious. Someone recently told me about his son’s love of football. I asked him why his son was so committed to the beautiful game. After some thought, he said: “Probably because I am so passionate about football!”. It’s the same at work. If you are passionate about what you do, those around you can be influenced to join you with their passion. If you are positively influencing those around you to be more committed and passionate, then that is significant.
Challenging The Status Quo
Challenging the status quo – the way things are – is something every one of us is capable of. Challenging the status quo is not only for researchers or senior managers. Each of us can challenge ourselves to be better, we can challenge the way things are done, we can challenge the processes that we execute, we can challenge the rules that we follow, we can even challenge the fundamental “why” behind things that we simply take for granted. Sales people can challenge commercial models; lab technicians can improve processes and procedures; HR practitioners can constantly look for new models of learning and behaviour to help people perform better. Some call it innovation, some call it continuous improvement. We all have an obligation to do it.
Each one of us has a purpose – a reason(s) for being. We become truly significant when our purpose aligns with our workplace/company’s purpose. It’s the reason that the company’s values are so important, so valued and should be so prominently displayed. Significance comes from having purpose – and again, each one of us is able to achieve significance by pursuing something greater than ourselves.
Finally, we become significant through serving others: our customers, our managers, our reports, our colleagues, and the community within which we operate. Service simply requires that we suspend our own self-interest in the interests of supporting and enabling others. Ultimately it is in serving others that we grow. And they grow. And collectively we enable significance for the whole.
In summary, significance isn’t the preserve of the rich and famous. It is within the reach of each person who is part of the team. Significance simply requires that we do the best we can at our jobs, we pursue even mundane tasks with the passion of an Olympic athlete, we challenge everything (without being obstructive, of course!), we align our personal purpose with the company’s purpose, and we arrive at work every day with the intent to add value to someone else’s day!