Finding Meaning in the Organization

Too often, leaders impose top-down visions on their organizations. The best leaders identify and express the meaning that is inherent in the organization’s work.

Traditionally, an organization’s executives are expected to create the vision for the organization; in fact, that is perhaps the most fundamental of all leadership functions. Leaders, according to the conventional view, articulate a vision to give a sense of purpose to the organization.

Once the vision is developed, the executives’ next task is to promote its adoption throughout the organization. There are particular expressions that depict this process, such as “aligning the organization with its strategy” or “cascading the vision down the ranks.” The tacit operating assumption is that the leaders, in a classic top-down fashion, divine a mission that becomes actualized as it is adopted by the ranks. Here’s how former Secretary of State General Colin Powell describes the visioning process, as captured by Oren Harari in The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell1: “[Effective leaders] articulate vivid, overarching goals and values, which they use to drive daily behaviors and choices among competing alternatives…. Their decisions are crisp and clear, not tentative and ambiguous…. They convey an unwavering firmness and consistency in their actions, aligned with the picture of the future they paint.”

The theme of this excerpt is that leaders need to be very clear about their vision. Notice also the choice of words — especially the word “drive,” which suggests that people need to be driven toward the vision. Furthermore, the vision has been preformulated and is now firm rather than tentative or ambiguous.

In a similar vein, John Kotter,2 in his discussion of leadership, talks about alignment. One of the first jobs of top managers, according to Kotter, is to “get people to comprehend a vision of an alternative future.” The managers’ next challenge is what Kotter refers to as sustaining credibility, namely, “getting people to believe the message.” Finally, people need to be empowered to carry out the vision.

Kotter’s view of empowerment, however, is constrained. Workers are empowered when they acquiesce to the vision. Here’s how he puts it: “When a clear sense of direction has been communicated throughout an organization, lower-level employees can initiate actions without the same degree of vulnerability. As long as their behavior is consistent with the vision, superiors will have more difficulty reprimanding them.” This quote is striking in that it suggests that employees operate in a punitive system to begin with.

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1. O. Harari, “The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell” (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 122–123.

2. J.P. Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review 79 (December 2001): 85–96.

3. M.J. Wheatley, “Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1992), 136.

4. See, for example, W.H. Starbuck, “Organizations as Action Generators,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 1 (1983): 91–102; and D.A. Cowan, C.M. Fiol and J.P. Walsh, “A Midrange Theory of Strategic Choice Processes” in R.L. Phillips and J.G. Hunt, eds., “Strategic Leadership: A Multiorganizational-Level Perspective” (Westport, Connecticut: Quorum, 1992).

5. D. Gergen, “Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 348.

6. A. de Saint-Exupéry, “The Wisdom of the Sands,” translated by S. Gilbert from the French “Citadelle” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

7. D. Goleman, “Leadership That Gets Results,” Harvard Business Review 78 (March–April 2000): 78–90.

8. H.H. Brinton and M.H. Bacon, “Friends for 300 Years: The History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends Since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement” (New York: Harper, 1952).

9. R.K. Greenleaf, “The Power of Servant Leadership” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1998), 133–135.

10. See A. Godard and V. Lenhardt, “Transformational Leadership: Shared Dreams to Succeed” (Paris: Village Mondial, 1999; translation New York: Macmillan, 2000), 76–78, 93, 110–111.

11. See Iva Wilson’s commentary in B. Frydman, I. Wilson and J. Wyer, “The Power of Collaborative Leadership” (Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000), 223, 247.

12. J.A. Raelin, “Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring out Leadership in Everyone” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003).

13. E. Wenger, “Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity” (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

14. W.H. Drath and C.J. Palus, “Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-making in a Community of Practice” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1994).

15. T. Kidder, “The Soul of a New Machine” (New York: Avon Books, 1981).

16. C.O. Scharmer, “Self-transcending Knowledge: Sensing and Organizing Around Emerging Opportunities,” Journal of Knowledge Management 5, no. 2 (2001): 137–150.

17. D. Schiff, “An Older, Wiser, Humbler Wunderkind,” New York Times Magazine, August 20,1995, 31.

18. J. Neal, “Spirituality in Management Education: A Guide to Resources,” Journal of Management Education 21, no. 1 (1997): 121–140.