Understanding Leadership And The Meaning Of Life


Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited to participate in a number of projects and initiatives looking at collecting the thoughts and perspectives from a diverse set of experts, thought leaders, and personalities. For some of these projects, the contributions being sought were straight-forward and to the point.

But others tended to take on a more thought-provoking approach. The most recent example of this came in the form of a web project I was recently asked to participate in where organizers asked people from different fields and life experiences to give their answer to this question: what is the meaning of life?

As I began to write down my response, I couldn’t help but note how my answer to this profound question also revealed something about the very nature of leadership in today’s workplaces, and what’s required for us to be successful in bringing out the best in those we lead.

Of course, if there was ever a question that continued to capture the imagination and promote a healthy intellectual debate about the value of our collective humanity, it’d be the question what’s the meaning of life.

Lately, it would seem that the answer to this question for our contemporary Western society is the pursuit of happiness, and not surprisingly so when we consider that while the majority of us are not rich, we have nonetheless attained a level of materialistic and gastronomic comfort.

So it would seem that all that’s left for us to grasp for is attaining a constant level of happiness in our daily lives.

Certainly, this is a common theme that’s found in many books and articles looking at how to reignite the internal drives of our employees – that to boost employee engagement in today’s organizations, we need to promote a “happy workplace”.

And yet, if you ask me, the answer to finding the meaning of life – and with it, a greater level of employee engagement and motivation in your organization – is not found in the pursuit for happiness, but in the journey to find a sense of purpose.

The truth is that the majority of us have been fortunate to experience moments of varying degrees of happiness – from a sense of security and comfort found in our daily lives and routines, to the sheer joy and elation that comes from unique life experiences and sharing our lives with those we love and hold dear to our hearts.

But as that seemingly unending restlessness that’s become a fixture of our modern age becomes less and less abated by material pursuits, it’s only natural that we look for other ways to keep that perpetual state of happiness in our field of view. That the way we now ascertain the value of our life’s circumstances is no longer by what we have, but by how we feel.

This is why we see so much being written today about the importance of emotional intelligence in today’s leadership – studies done over the past decade or so have conclusively shown that we can’t keep our employees invested in the vision we have for our team or organization simply by handing out perks or bonuses.

Instead, the key to getting our employees to care about our vision is to care about what matters to them [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we discover and learn about the things that will make them feel a sense of value and benefit in the contributions they make to our organization.

Of course, we have to be mindful that happiness should not be the end goal, but the outcome of what we do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Our ability to encourage our employees to bring their best selves to the work they do is not dependent on whether it makes them happy. Rather, the function of leadership today is giving our employees the opportunity to challenge themselves to grow and evolve; to be more than they are today.

Indeed, leadership is not about making people happy, but in helping them find purpose in what they do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. By providing that kind of environment where people feel a connection between what they do and what matters to them, we are serving to create conditions in which happiness can be found.

After all, for genuine happiness to take hold, it needs to be anchored to something for it to count, to have meaning and value. And that anchor is purpose. It’s finding meaning in the action, in the moment. It’s knowing that what we do matters, not just for ourselves, but to those around us.

In some ways, this explains the growing tendency found among people from every walk of life to take and share selfies with their online social communities – it’s not to prove to themselves where they went because they know they were there.

Instead, it’s a way for us to show others that I was here. Not necessarily in a narcissistic or pretentious way – although that probably is the case for some people. But more so in the vein that the experience can now be shared with others in order to give it meaning. That it doesn’t simply exist in our mind’s eye, but in the recollections of those around us.

If we look at any great human endeavour, at any great achievement or historical milestone in the history of our collective humanity, what we’ll find within that moment is that it was fuelled by the drive to find and create a sense of purpose in our collective efforts.

Indeed, the reason so many of them still resonate with us today is because we can see within that moment of time the tendrils of purpose and meaning. That this is important not just because of its historical implications, but because it mattered to those who existed at that time.

Outside of that context, outside of that meaning, things lose their value, their importance, their gravitas.

In searching for my answer to the question what’s the meaning of life, I began to appreciate that this line of inquiry will forever be a personal and deeply intimate journey of self-reflection and discovery as it’s not linked exclusively to our emotional state, or to how we view the world and our place within it.

Rather, the key to discovering the answer is found in what we use to gauge and assess what we did with the life we had.

Did we do something of value with that grain of sand that represents our life within that hourglass of time? Something that makes us feel like we had a purpose, a reason for which to leave our footprints – no matter how faint – across the sands of time? Did we achieve a sense of purpose to give our life meaning and value outside of ourselves?

Understandably, these are questions for which the answers are not so easy to find, and even at times perhaps, not the answers we might like to hear.

And yet the fundamental truth of today’s modern world is that these are questions that today’s leaders need to be comfortable answering – not just for themselves, but for those they lead as it will be these questions that employees use to gauge and assess whether you are the kind of leader they will want to follow, and whether the work they do merits imparting the best of who they are.

Indeed, a key function of leadership is answering the question why should others care about our vision [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. We have to demonstrate to our employees why they should willingly commit their talents, their creativity, their insights, and their experiences to the shared purpose we’re putting forth as the raison d’être behind our collective efforts.

Thanks to technological advances of the past few decades, the key to organizational success and longevity is no longer found exclusively in our processes or devices, but in the people we lead and in particular, in our ability to encourage them to bring their full selves to the work they do.

There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

There’s no question that leadership today is more challenging than it was before thanks to the increasing complexity and greater ease with which information and ideas can be freely shared. But if there’s one thing that’s becoming abundantly clear it’s that leadership is no longer about simply managing data points and short term gains.

It’s about understanding the role we play in helping our employees answer the question about what they see as being the meaning of life – of what will provide them with a sense of purpose and value, and how we can tie that to the collective efforts of our organization.

Granted, we can’t personally answer this question for each of our employees, nor should any leader be expected to.

But if we can help them find that sense of purpose in what they do, and in what they give of themselves to our shared purpose and to those around them, then we will provide them with the conditions in which we can find springing forth the very thing that occupies our hearts and minds in this modern world – attaining a sense of happiness and fulfillment in how we choose to live our lives.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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