Laying bricks or building cathedrals

6 months ago I had the privilege of a visit to the Sagrada Familia with the head structural architect of the works and a friend of mine who is the owner of the oldest architectural practice in Spain. I will never see the Sagrada Familia the same way again. Sharing in the passion of these two architects for the grand vision and the minute details of Gaudi left me seeing that this is much more than a building.

During this visit I come across three bricklayers. The three are working on the same area, placing brick on top of brick. Imagine this exchange of words:

I walk up to the first bricklayer and I ask him “What are you doing?”. He turns his head, and with a look of disdain he says “I am laying bricks”.

I move on to the second bricklayer. I ask him “What are you doing?”. He turns his head and with a look of appreciation he says “I am making a wall”.

I approach the third bricklayer and ask him “What are you doing?”. He looks up with a smile, and I see a glint in his eye as he says “I am building a cathedral”.

There is no difference in what these three are doing, but there is a huge difference in what they feel about what they are doing. Who will be here on a cold, wet day when times are tough? What has happened that this third man has connected with a much bigger and profound vision of his work? What can a leader do to connect people to something bigger than the operational activity of their day to day labour?

I believe that a heightened sense of the broader impact of a role has an impact on ethics, on performance, and on the ability to attract more talent that will take the organization on to greater impact on its world. Bankers who view their role as maximizing profit on this deal are just like bricklayers who see their job as no more than ensuring the bricks stay on top of each other just long enough to get paid.

The professions had this in the past. Politicians, doctors, bankers, lawyers, journalists felt they played a privileged role in society improving the quality of life, the quality of the institutions of life.

I read an article on a company called NetApp today on Fortune.com in an article on 100 best companies to work for. NetApp are the number 1 company to work for on this year’s list. NetApp early on ditched a 12 page corporate travel policy and replaced it with “We are a frugal company. But don’t show up dog-tired to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.” I like the fact that the directors made this change – but also trust the values of their people. NetApp are not trying to hire bricklayers – they are hiring and trusting cathedral builders.

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