What if your work mattered so much to you that – on your deathbed – you found yourself wishing for one more day at the office?
Last summer, I lost my father. In the months before his death, I had time to reminisce with him about his life’s high points, among them, his job. We spent many afternoons talking about work, being a boss, and what really matters in the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that while my dad was dying I was writing a book about leadership.
My father worked in banking. At the height of his career he was director for the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. During the S&L crisis of the 1980s, he ran a team whose purpose was to merge failing banks with solvent banks, so taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the bill if an S&L went under.
In his office, my father kept a flipchart tracking how much money his department saved the U.S. taxpayers. He updated that chart weekly and shared it with anyone who walked into his office. Financial experts estimated that my father and his team saved the taxpayers billions of dollars. The stakes were high. The work was difficult, but his team was passionate about it because they knew it mattered.
We’ve all heard the adage: No one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at the office. I think that adage is misunderstood. It belittles the role that meaningful work plays in our lives. A 2005 study of terminal cancer patients found that, once the patients finished talking about their families, some of their most meaningful experiences involved doing work that mattered with people they cared about.
That study mirrors what I experienced with my father. My dad loved his family. By the standards of the day, he spent significantly more time with his kids than most men. He changed diapers, coached, did home projects, camped. He even learned how to score gymnastics to help my high school team.
He also loved his job. When my father fell ill, reading notes from his former colleagues was a high point for him. He loved talking about the good times, and the bad, the obstacles they’d faced, the deals that had gone well, and the deals that hadn’t. My father swelled with pride as he talked about his team and the impact they’d had on the banking system.
It’s easy to say family is the most important thing. Yet, watching my father reflect upon his life, it’s obvious to me – work matters. We spend most of our waking hours at work. Those hours ought to mean something.
I often hear leaders lamenting that employees “just don’t care anymore.” Perhaps the reason behind this employee malaise is that leadership hasn’t given them anything meaningful to care about.
We’ve made some faulty assumptions about work, and those assumptions are killing us. We’ve allowed the money story to replace the meaning story. The narrative of earnings and bonuses that was supposed to improve employee performance has had the opposite effect. It has stripped the joy and meaning from work in ways that have a chilling effect on morale, performance, service, and ultimately profit itself.
The crisis of disengaged employees only proves what we already know in our hearts to be true. You can’t spreadsheet your way to passion.
Without a higher purpose, your organization is doomed to mediocrity.