10/05/2010 11:38 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Nothing Without Labor

That was the message from the principal at my son's back-to-school night. It was proudly displayed on bright blue banners throughout the school hallways and on buttons handed out by the students. Really? That message is suppose to inspire the kids to do their best and be their best? Nothing without labor. What about "nothing without passion"? Or, "nothing without care"? Wouldn't connecting to our care actually inspire and motivate us more than the notion of labor and effort?

It's not unlike all those mission statements I've passed in the hallways of my clients' companies over the years. They were hung with good intentions too, I'm sure. They were put there to inspire and motivate as well but they, too, missed the mark.

One of the great teachers on the topic of leadership, Robert Dunham, said that leadership at its core is about helping people connect what they do with what they care about. Leaders help others make a connection between their actions and how those actions are creating the future they want. When we forget why we are doing what we are doing, the tasks themselves become empty, meaningless, and tedious if not downright laborious. It's hard to be creative and innovate from that place.

You may be familiar with the parable of the stone cutters that illustrates this quite well.

A laborer was breaking stones in a field and was asked by a passerby "what are you doing?" The laborer replied in a very dour mood, "I am breaking my back to cut these stones." The passerby walked on and came upon another laborer in the field who was also breaking stones. The laborer, in answer to the same question, answered rather matter-of-factly "I am working to feed my family and keep a roof over our head." Coming upon another laborer and asking the same question again this laborer stopped and, with a grand smile and a gaze towards the sky, replied "I am building a cathedral."

It's so easy to lose sight of the cathedral, isn't it? It's easy to forget what we are taking care of with all of our labor. Having been an executive coach for many years, the most consistent challenge my executive clients reveal after a few coaching sessions is that they have lost sight of what really matters. They talk in terms of having lost the fire in their belly and of not finding meaning in their work any longer. They say they have sacrificed the 'why' for the 'what' meaning they got busy doing stuff and forgot to take care of what they most cared about.

The really good news is that getting back in touch with what you care about - what brings you meaning - isn't hard to do. It's a habit you can learn. It's a leadership move that doesn't take much effort. It takes practice but not effort. Here's how you get started - ask the question! Ask your team what they most care about. Ask your family what they most care about. Ask your students what they most care about. Leave time and space for the reflections. A typical, off-the-top-of-the-head answer will usually be something like: I care about making enough money to do or have x, y or z. That's a start. Now ask what will having x, y, or z get you? What does that take care of? Don't rush. These aren't questions to answer to check off your list. These questions open up new thinking; they lay a path of possibilities before you. The questions are to be savored like a fine wine. Oh, and the most important rule of all is...don't judge. There's room for all of our cares. It's a really big world.

I can't help but think that the principal missed an enormous opportunity that night to inspire those kids by reminding them that they were building a cathedral; that with the coming school year they would be exploring new thinking and new ideas and new possibilities to help them build the futures they wanted. Now that's a message to get inspired over. You mean by studying here (wherever here is) I'm actually going to be able to take care of what I care about? How cool is that!?

I can't help but think that our organizations would be operating with a lot more ease, creativity and innovation if there was more room for more cathedral conversations. I can't help but think that it might lead to us uncovering solutions to some of the very complex and pressing problems of our times.

One final note, I'd be terribly remiss if I didn't ask you: what do you care about? What are you taking care of through your activities and conversations today, tomorrow, this year, next year?

If your answers don't come quickly then congratulations! These are not inconsequential questions. They deserve reflection, exploration, consideration. After all, your every waking moment is spent doing things - filled with activities - let's hope they are taking care of what you most care about. And if they aren't, what a perfect time to refocus and realign your actions with the future you want to take care of.

And, as for labor, I've got no problem with it in case you've been formulating an argument for it while reading this. Of course you have to take actions to get your results. I work really hard, it just doesn't feel like it because I'm taking care of what I most care about and, for me, that's the definition of a life well lived.