Thursday, January 25, 2007

Igniting the Fire of Purpose

He’s only 16 years and brimming with the fire of purpose. In reading his story, Luke sounds like and acts like an old soul. Working in his parents’ restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, he’s pursuing a culinary calling making “homemade” food for the lucky locals and visitors to the city.

A follower of the “Slow Food Movement”, he asks customers not to rush the chef as “our foods are handcrafted as they were hundreds of years ago in villages scattered throughout Italy and France”. He experiments continuously, avidly reads cookbooks, gets absorbed in the minutiae of the culinary arts and lovingly presents each plate for patrons as if it was a piece of art. He dreams big of greenhouses, a beehive, an olive grove and other things that will make a completely sustainable restaurant. In short, he’s possessed like an artist by a calling.

Imagine if each of us in organizations were inspired like Luke? We would not have to pay attention to benchmarking as we would set our own. We would not as leaders have to manage as much because those around us would be pulling us forward. The energy would be palpable. Excitement and fun would be in the air. Creativity would abound because we’d be feeding off each others’ ideas as we pursued our laser focus on quality and innovation.

Social scientists generally agree that humans are naturally goal-driven. We get satisfaction from accomplishing things. Our human history is replete with stories like Luke’s, some recorded in books and articles, many only known locally.

Central to each is the person and persons being driven by a force greater than them alone. They want to engage in work that is meaningful. David Bornstein in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas explains that individuals have a strong desire to apply their talents in ways that bring security, recognition and meaning. Nikos Mourkogiannis in Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies refers to the phenomenon as the primary source of achievement, a game of champions, a function of character and crucial to the success of enterprises.

Yet we struggle to ignite and inspire people in organizations with purpose and meaning. Based on the constant outpouring of satisfaction surveys, the evidence points to the desire often being present for employees but it is frequently squashed by the working environment.

The latest annual survey results from Sirota Survey Intelligence, a workplace attitude pollster in Purchase N.Y., underscores that people want meaning in their work. They will rise to the occasion if they are treated with respect, dealt with equitably, and feel connected to the organization on a work and personal level. Unfortunately, the 64,304 employees surveyed of whom 8,000 were Canadian indicate that the sense of excitement and anticipation on these expectations plummets from 70 to 54 per cent after one year of service. The degree of satisfaction does not easily go back up. In the organizations that intentionally work on developing consistent leadership and management policies and practices, the satisfaction level is 75 per cent after one year. This applies for older employees (55 and older) as well as those aged 25 to 34. Considerable research highlights the correlation between satisfaction and productivity; thus, this is a serious business matter for all organizations.

Take Toyota. It’s rising to the top in the car industry, surpassing GM and Ford. Today, Ford reported a never before in its history loss of more than $12 B while Toyota is thriving. In 2006, GM and Ford terminated 46,000 North America employees and will be closing 26 plants in North America over the next 5 years. Toyota has never closed a plant. It’s opening them instead. Much can be attributed to its culture of continuous improvement as described in The Toyota Way and more recently in the December 2006 Fast Company, No satisfaction at Toyota (

At Toyota the mantra is three fold: “making cars, making cars better and teaching everyone how to make cars better”. The perpetual focus on asking questions of the existing processes followed by constant tweaking has led to outstanding growth and quality. This cannot be achieved without inspired employees.

Inspiration happens one employee at a time. For Luke, his parents provide the support and the tools for continuous improvement. He’s got the natural drive to excel in the culinary business. Luke is fortunate.

Others have succeeded despite enormous obstacles. That’s the norm too often. Who knows what more they could have achieved if the environment had been a little more benign?

In many ways, this is an old story. Our natural predispositions are ignited or not at the intersection of our circumstances and desire. Aware and determined leaders always have the opportunity to make that intersection one that turns little acorns into trees.


Foufolle said...


Anonymous said...

As I observed Luke on TV and read about him the thought that came to my mind was "Asperger's"? As the parent of an AS child I say that not with any disparagement, or to be "insulting" if that's not in fact the case--but with extreme admiration for a young man who has found his calling and his passion, and who has the focus and interest to pursue that calling. Congratulations.