I can still see the picture. My grandfather stands awkwardly in the way of a poor man unused to being photographed. He clutches a small cloth sack and a one-way ticket in one hand, a broom in the other. He waits to board a train in search of work during the Depression.
When I asked him about the broom he said, "I didn't want to show up on a man's doorstep empty-handed. I was hoping somebody could at least use me to sweep up for them."
Fortunately he and his broom find work as a farm laborer. He sleeps in a barn at first and is eventually able to send for his family. He lived and worked for the rest of his life on that 3,000-acre property.
When I was young I didn't recognize the fundamental dichotomy in his life: Employed by the wealthiest man in the county and taking justifiable pride in maintaining a showcase property, he was also in essence a tenant farmer who never owned his own home or vehicle. Losing his job would not just take away his income, it would instantly make his family homeless.
So, some years later, he bought a racehorse.
Buying the horse made no sense considering he spent nearly all of what little savings they had. He scraped together money for entry fees and ran without success at small tracks across the state. Finally his horse managed a second place finish at his local county fair.
After the race he held up the small silver plate at the finish line so I could take his picture. Then we slowly led the horse back up the track to the stables as people he knew congratulated him. I was only twelve, but even I saw a noticeable difference in the way he walked. For a few brief moments he stood tall and carried himself with a visible sense of accomplishment, dignity, and pride.
Years later I realized why my grandfather bought the horse. He desperately wanted to be someone. He wanted to matter.
So do your employees.
I know: Sometimes your employees do things that aren't logical. Sometimes they take over projects or roles without approval or justification. Sometimes they jockey for position, play political games, or ignore company or team objectives in pursuit of personal goals.
At those moments it's easy to assume your employees don't listen or simply don't care. But instead they could be striving to add significance to their lives, to gain a sense of meaning that pay rates and titles can never provide.
As a leader, providing a sense of meaning is arguably your most important role. Assign projects, no matter how small. Praise individual employees in public as often as you can. Extend responsibility, since implicit in responsibility lies trust and regard. Help employees understand their place in a larger effort that transcends procedures, tasks, and measurable outcomes.
Like my grandfather, we all want to matter. Help your employees know they matter. Especially to you.
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