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, executives are expected to create the vision for the organization they lead; the leaders’ vision is then disseminated throughout the ranks. However, such top-down vision creation may mean that not all employees wholeheartedly embrace the vision they are given. An alternative approach to vision creation is found in the concept of “meaning-making.” A meaning-maker is a member of a group who — regardless of whether he or she is a formal authority figure — articulates what the group is trying to accomplish in its work. Meaning-makers are typically deeply engaged in their work settings and are usually observant people who listen well and are in tune with a group’s or an organization’s rhythm. Using techniques such as images, humor or a new perspective on a situation, they are able to express a group’s collective insight. For example, a pizza restaurant company was floundering until one of the senior managers articulated the idea that the company was not in a restaurant business so much as in a distribution business. This new model galvanized the organization, and local managers sought new outlets to distribute the company’s pizza. Managers who are meaning-makers also may help others to articulate the meaning of the group’s work, and such managers tend to embody a flexible style of leadership that recognizes that leadership is expressed in how people interact. While some have wondered whether meaning-making has to do with spirituality, the role of the meaning-maker in most organizations has less to do with transcendental, universal meaning than with identifying a here-and-now meaning related to the work people do together.