Strategic Leadership Journal
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  Leaders Create Meaning
  Robert Whipple


          Many people only go through the motions at work, while trying to stay out of trouble with the boss. Their jobs feel like a meaningless array of busywork foisted upon them by management. Although the quality of work life is low, these people may feel trapped in their jobs for various reasons. It is possible for leaders to create a culture where people are energized because they are fully engaged in the business. This article describes eight techniques that have been used successfully to create an environment where people see meaning in their work and willingly give their maximum discretionary effort to the organization.


          Apathetic people exist in many organizations.  One can fault workers who allow themselves to be trapped in a state of despair.  Managers typically describe these people as having "bad attitudes," but the environment created by leaders is often the root cause of the problem. The evidence shows that if these same individuals are put in an environment of trust and challenge, many of them will quickly rise up to become happy and productive workers (Bennis, 1999). It is essential that each individual in the workforce find real meaning in the work being done. While the responsibility for motivation is always shared between employees and management, managers have more leverage to change the dynamic in most organizations. As students of leadership, we all have an obligation to learn the vital lessons of how to achieve an environment of maximum trust and engagement. Further, we have an obligation to teach other leaders how to achieve the kind of culture where people can achieve their potential and be energized at work.

Examples from Literature

          Some research into the importance of meaning was presented by Viktor Frankl in his famous book, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl posits that it "is a peculiarity of man that he must have something significant yet to do in his life, for that is what gives meaning to life" (2004, p. 56). He discovered this universally human trait while surviving the most horrific life conditions in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II. One cannot imagine a more oppressive environment. Believe it or not, many people at work feel like they are trapped in an oppressive environment every day (Iles, 1996). The antidote, Frankl discovered, is for leaders to create something "significant yet to do." It means that creating a positive image of the future allows people to see where their talents support the efforts of others in support of the vision. "As each has received a gift, employ it in serving one another, as good managers of the grace of God in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:10).

          People need to see a better world for themselves before they can respond with maximum energy to a vision. "If people can't see a better world at the end of the journey, don’t expect them to be wild about the process. That’s why it is critical to have people at all levels support the vision. Leaders become the artists who carefully paint the picture of a better future on the canvas of today’s paradigm" (Whipple, 2003, p. 109).

In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell pointed out there is a logical sequence where, "people buy into the leader, then the vision" (1998, p. 143). In a faith-based organization, the leader needs to translate beliefs into concepts that can be internalized by others. As pointed out by Kevin Cashman in Leadership From the Inside Out, "As you believe, so shall you lead" (1998, p. 31).

          Dave and Wendy Ulrich, co-authors of The Why of Work put it this way: "In organizations, meaning and abundance are more about what we do with what we have than about what we have to begin with" (2010, p. 27). They point out that workers are in some ways like volunteers who can choose where they allocate their time and energy.  For their own peace and health, it is imperative that workers feel connected to the meaning of their work.  Leaders need to draw people to their vision, as noted by Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge: "The executive must find a way to communicate the vision in a way that attracts and excites members of the organization" (1987, p. 106).

How Leaders Provide Meaning

          What can leaders do to ensure that the maximum number of people have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work?  Here are eight approaches that have been used by successful leaders.

  • Have high ethical and moral standards. Operate from a set of values, and make sure people know why those values are important. Values are a function of our world view and training. The essence of values needs to be implanted in the hearts and minds of everyone, and behaviors need to be consistent with them. A plaque on the wall does not make for good values, only people living up to their highest standards makes for good values and an environment where people can trust each other and their leaders. It has to start with the leaders.
  • Operate with high Emotional Intelligence. The ability to work well with people is critical. Without Emotional Intelligence, leaders do not have the skill to transform intentions into meaning within people. Leaders with low Emotional Intelligence also have the most significant blind spots in how they are perceived by other people, as documented by Daniel Goleman (1997). Good leaders constantly hone their Emotional Intelligence through feedback and reflection, which helps to foster trust.
  • Build trust. Trust is the glue that holds people together in a framework of positive purpose. Without trust, we are just playing games with each other, hoping to get through the day unscathed. "Because trust flourishes in the caring organization, the organization does not have to invest resources in monitoring its employees and trying to make sure that they do not violate their contractual agreements" (Velasquez, 2002, p. 492). The most significant way leaders help create trust is by rewarding candor, which is accomplished by not punishing people for speaking their truth. Most leaders find it difficult to reward candor, but it is the heart of great leadership, as documented by Warren Bennis (2008).  Trust is also enabled by a shared set of goals or vision.
  • Create a positive vision of the future. Vision is critical, because without it people see no sense of direction for their work. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  If people have a common goal, and it is communicated well, then it is possible for them to support each other and actually get excited about the future. People have an unquenchable thirst for information. Monthly newsletters and occasional town hall meetings do not constitute adequate communication. People must feel informed and "in the loop" every day. In the Bible, the concept of communicating a vision is described extensively in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 37, Joseph had a dream and communicated it poorly and inappropriately. He ended up being thrown into a pit and eventually being sold into slavery. By Genesis 41, where Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, he had learned to interpret the vision and message in a way that spurred people to action, resulting in saving many people from starvation during a famine. Having a positive vision of the future, and being able to communicate it well, enables the inevitable change process to be more effective.
  • Lead change well. Change processes are in play in every organization daily, yet most leaders struggle with change according to John Kotter (1996). Study the techniques of successful change so people do not become confused and disoriented. Using a change model can help people deal with the challenges of constantly changing conditions. An example is to use the grief counseling process where leaders help people cope with the four phases of change: 1) Anticipation, 2) Ending, 3) Transition, and 4) Beginning. People will rise to a challenge if it is properly presented and managed. Challenge is different from constant demands to perform at levels beyond reason, which leads to resentment and burnout. Properly designed, challenges help people find meaning in their work, which keeps them from becoming apathetic and helps enable strong teamwork.
  • Build High Performing Teams. A sense of purpose is enhanced if there is a kind of peer cohesion brought on by good teamwork. Great teams derive an adrenalin rush from achieving results against high goals, as described by Jack Stack (1992). Foster togetherness in teams so people will relate to their tasks instinctively. Effective teams have a charter where the goals, behaviors, and consequences are well documented. High performing teams need a common goal, trust in team members, and good leadership. Strong teams build enthusiasm and morale.
  • Build morale the right way. Motivation is derived by treating people with respect and giving them clear vision and autonomy. Avoid trying to motivate people by adding hygiene factors, like picnics, bonuses, or hat days, as described by Frederick Herzberg in his "Two Factor Theory" (Value Based, 2010). Herzberg posits that leaders do not motivate people, rather they create the environment where people decide whether to become motivated. This wording sounds like doubletalk, but it is a powerful message many leaders do not understand. The acid test is whether a manager frequently uses the word "motivate" as a verb. If a manager constantly says things like "we have to find a way to motivate them," it indicates a poor understanding of the nature of true motivation. A better approach is to use the word “motivation” as a noun. Motivation is the outcome of a great culture rather than something one does unto other people. Building motivation also means treating people the right way. In most cases, focusing on the Golden Rule works well. In some cases, the Golden Rule would not be wise, because not all individuals want to be treated the same way. For example, if one person is most happy when overworked, that may not be a good condition to project onto other people. Use of the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they would like to be treated) is helpful as long as it is not taken to a literal extreme. The best advice is simply to treat people the right way, accounting for individual differences within a framework of discipline and care as described by Joseph Grenny (2005).
  • Recognize and celebrate excellence. Reinforcement is the most powerful tool leaders have for changing behavior. In a learning environment, errors in reinforcement provide clues to how an improved system of reward and recognition can enhance the meaning of work. Ken Blanchard (2002) has documented the science of reinforcement and the power it has to influence people in several of his books, including Whale Done. Leaders need to learn how to reinforce well and avoid the minefield of reinforcement mistakes that are easy to make. For example:
  • Do not try to apply the same reinforcement techniques to all individuals or all situations.
  • Avoid too much use of trivial trinkets like t-shirts or hats.
  • Make sure the recognition is truly reinforcing to each individual.
  • Ensure fairness when reinforcing individuals or groups.


          Most of the above concepts sound like common sense; unfortunately, they are not routinely practiced in many groups, which contributes to much of the apathy in organizations. To have people rise to their level of potential, they must have a sense of meaning. To accomplish that, focus on the above concepts, and see a remarkable transformation in the organization. Become a student of these skills, and teach them to other leaders. Learn how to personify the concepts listed above to rise to the level of great leadership. As Mahatma Gandhi taught us, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."


Robert Whipple MBA CPLP is the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. Contact Bob at or