My weekly web radio program, Leading the Way to Success, produces some incredibly savvy comments from the leaders I interview. Recently, my guest was Arlene Withers, the CAO and Chief Counsel for the Motion Picture Industry Health and Benefits Plans, and the show followed that same pattern—only more so.
My interview with Arlene made me even more convinced that there are gems of leadership wisdom to be mined from those who are excellent leaders but too busy to write books. And many of their insights aren’t covered in the wide array of leadership books I have read.
Arlene’s philosophy has been honed through several varied experiences from anthropology to law school and legal practice to human resources to certified mediator to professor to professional coach and more. Above all, she said when discussing the management of people, “you have to give them a higher purpose. They need to feel that their job is more than a paycheck—that it’s a “calling” that in some way helps make a contribution.”
Most of the 50 million hits on Google on “a higher purpose,” stem from a religious point of view, or at least spiritual. I didn’t find any that talked about the concept on the job—but of course, I didn’t review all 50 million!
The truth is that the nonprofit world has benefited from this idea, if using other terminology, since the beginning. Most people go to work for nonprofits because they want to help somebody. Harder to find a higher purpose in a for-profit company, but as Arlene made it clear, it is possible. She believes that “everyone in their heart yearns to make a difference.” People want their work to be meaningful.
Arlene cited an example of a situation she walked in to where employees were essentially shuffling paper from one desk to another, all day everyday. In her trainings, she spent time showing them how their work connected to the whole—and in fact, that success depended on their work.
Our conversation expanded into thoughts on leadership. “What I do, I am, and for that I came,” are words from a poem that Arlene quoted on the subject. She explained that she believes “leadership is not positional. Change does not have to be from the top down. Whatever you can control, you can change.” “If you’re the only one who wants change,” Arlene continued, “then you can start with what’s on your desk. If another person joins you, than that’s two desks and that can be the beginning of major change.”
While I enjoyed hearing all the elements of Arlene’s thoughts on leadership, most of all, I love the concept of higher purpose in an organizational setting. We can talk about vision and mission until we’re blue in the face and many employees won’t get it, but somehow “higher purpose” and a “calling” speaks beyond words. The crucial issue of course is that it’s not enough to help someone see the higher purpose. It’s up to the leader to ensure that the higher purpose is worth working for.