My good friend, Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Leading with Noble Purpose writes in her best-selling book: “We’ve all heard the adage: ‘No one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at the office.’

That adage, though, is misunderstood. It belittles the critical role that meaningful work plays in our lives. Human beings are hardwired for meaning. We want our lives to count for something. Unfortunately, many people see their work as devoid of higher purpose. Instead, they experience work as an endless grind. But it’s not the work itself that kills our spirit. It’s doing work without meaning.”

Meaning is elevating and enriching when it reflects a valued purpose, a gallant proposition, and a virtuous promise. It inspires when it connects a person with an appealing higher plain — one that enhances, deepens, and nurtures. Its by-product – passion – is released when employees view their role and responsibility in grander terms than simply doing a task or job. People are more enthused about “building a great cathedral, than simply laying bricks.” It means helping every employee see a clear link between their efforts and this grander calling. And, it includes reinforcing the work standard that all actions must be congruent with that noble purpose.

Researcher Arie de Geus in his book, The Living Company, revealed that the average life expectancy of a multinational corporation – Fortune 500 Company or its equivalent – is forty to fifty years. Forty percent of newly created companies exist less than ten years. Yet, there are some that endure for centuries (Royal Dutch/Shell, W.R. Grace, DuPont, Rolls Royce, Suzuki, etc.). De Geus studied the companies that had lasted many years to learn what they shared in common.  First among the four commonalities included a strong and stable sense of purpose.

Turning Converted into Witness

I had a business meeting in Houston several years ago in a high-rise office building that was the corporate headquarters for a large company. The company rented the top four floors to my client while the rest of the building were their corporate offices. To get to my client’s offices, I was required to register with the security receptionist, get a badge, and wait for an escort. I could not help but notice the marble wall next to the security desk. Deeply engraved in the marble were the core values of the corporation; “integrity” topped their values list.  I was standing in the lobby of the corporate headquarters of Enron. 

What leader would not “salute their company flag” or pay homage to their corporate mission, vision or purpose. It would be downright “sacrilegious!” It is imperative for leaders to communicate to all that they are true believers – converted if you will – of what their company stands for. Pronouncements of such a belief make great fodder for all-employee meetings and shareholder gatherings. They look good in the annual report and on breakroom walls. But, being a pronouncer is a far cry from being a witness.

When I strolled through Universal Studios Hollywood with then theme park president Larry Kurzweil, he demonstrated his “full of noble purpose” witness by warmly greeted guests, asking if they were having a great time, and “polishing the park” by picking up trash. Marriott Corporation chairman, Bill Marriott, queries guests in hotel lobbies and elevators about their experience with Marriott’s service.  FedEx CEO Fred Smith reminds employees they are not just “taking stuff by 10:30,” they are delivering precious cargo to customers — an organ that may save a life, papers that could rescue a company, or someone’s fifth wedding anniversary gift. Kurzweil, Marriott, and Smith all know that leader observation is more telling to employees than leader conversation.

Do a noble purpose check. If you brought your child or grandchild to work for a day and allowed that child to watch you all day long, would that child be able to easily discern your purpose solely by your actions. Again, employees do not watch your mouth; they watch your moves. Those moves — your leadership acts as a witness to your purpose — tell the tale about whether it is a purpose you pronounce versus one you practice. When was the last time you made a controversial decision by coming down on the side of “the right thing to do?”

The word “noble” is synonymous with upright, virtuous, honorable, and ethical. We live in an era when concepts like pragmatic, cost-effective, efficient, and profitable are too often the sole criterion for decision-making. Greatness comes from integrating all of these attributes. But, when cost-effective and conscious-effective are at odds, great leaders boldly face the conflict that comes with always standing up for purpose. “You have enemies?  Good,” wrote Winston Churchill. “That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.” Witness means you have a job to do and not just a label to wear.