In May 2008, the Sichuan province in China was struck by a major earthquake, killing up to 68 000 people and leaving another 5 million people homeless. Nine-year-old Lin Hao was at his school when the earthquake hit, bringing the building down on him and the other children in the school. Lin Hao managed to dig himself out from the rubble but once he freed himself, he didn’t run off to search for his family or seeking refuge from the impending aftershocks. Instead, Lin Hao went back to the collapsed building and searched for other children that were trapped in the ruins. While digging through the rubble, he suffered injuries to his head and arms from falling debris. However, his efforts paid off as he managed to pull out two of his classmates who had also survived the school building’s collapse.
After he helped to free his two classmates, Lin Hao continued to search for survivors and found several other children trapped deeper in the ruins. As he couldn’t reach them, Lin Hao rested on the ruins of their school and encouraged the trapped children to sing along with him to keep their spirits up while they waited for help to arrive. Afterwards, Lin Hao was asked why he chose to stay near these children instead of finding a safer place to wait. Lin Hao replied “I was the hall monitor; it was my job to look after my classmates”.
It’s certainly an inspiring story of bravery and sacrifice, and I have no doubt we’ll hear similar stories from the survivors of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this month. Looking at it from the context of managing today’s workplaces, this story also illustrates the importance of recognizing and empowering within others the ability to fulfill their higher purpose.
Now, I’ve written before about the importance of leaders connecting an employees’ role to their organization’s purpose, as well as how leaders can communicate that connection so that their employees will have a context for how their contributions fit into the bigger picture.
But as I reflected on Lin Hao’s experiences and story, I began to wonder how many organizations are also addressing the need to connect their employees’ contributions to fulfilling a higher purpose.
Of course, many leaders will point out that they do provide their employees’ with work that comes with a sense of purpose. For example, Robert in accounting is responsible for managing the account of a major client and Samantha in R&D is heading the team in charge of developing new advancements for their existing product lines. While these examples might demonstrate how employees are contributing to their organization’s goals, they don’t answer the question of what their impact is beyond simply meeting the obligations of the responsibilities that go with their job function.
Indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, it’s no longer sufficient for leaders to advise their team on how they can accomplish a goal, but that they need to communicate why that accomplishment matters beyond their organization to those who are meant to benefit from their efforts.
In Lin Hao’s case, his actions weren’t simply a consequence of his responsibilities that came with serving as his school’s hall monitor. Instead, it was because he was driven to fulfill that sense of a higher purpose which exists in each of us; that internal drive which compels us to look beyond ourselves and commit to something greater than us.
The truth is that we all have this innate desire to give back and provide a benefit to others; to contribute in a manner that is meaningful beyond our own selves. It’s why our initial reaction to disasters like the one that hit Japan is to reach out and provide whatever assistance we can, instead of simply waving it off as being of no concern to us.
It’s also the common link shared among those organizations which are often discussed in business and public circles regarding their successes and thriving workplaces. These organizations have learned not only to recognize this truth, but how they can foster a culture and process which taps into this innate drive found in each of us.
This also underlies the new reality employers face in today’s work environment, in which organizations shouldn’t be focusing solely on retaining or attracting the top talent in their fields. Instead, their goal should be to retain and attract employees who share the same values as their organization. This way, an organization’s values won’t simply be mere words in the employee handbook, but behaviours and beliefs which will naturally manifest themselves through the conduct and efforts of their employees.
With such measures in place, leaders will be able to provide their employees with opportunities to go beyond simply fulfilling their positional/transactional obligations, to committing their talents and resources in providing a lasting value and benefit to those they serve.
And as Lin Hao showed us, when that happens, our sense of responsibility and commitment is no longer defined by circumstance or situation as it is by our sense of fulfilling a higher purpose through our actions. Under those conditions, not only do organizations and societies thrive, but also the individuals who make up that community.
So, how are you helping your employees to fulfill their higher purpose?