Meaning

Meaning: The Inspirational Thread Running Through Only the Most Impactful Cultures

“If you know the ‘why’, you can live any ‘how’.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently I led a CEO Roundtable in Lyon…the topic? Creating Meaning at work for leaders and their teams. And it was a lively discussion – this despite the fact we were all nearly strangers at the start of the meal.

Indeed, with the lingering effects of two years of COVID and now new, hybrid working models, the ever-present Ukraine upheaval and resulting dispossession from home for millions of people and drain on world fuel options, etc. – all of them are facing the unprecedented at-work crisis of depressed workers.

Absenteeism and resignations are at an all-time high. And these CEOs – already dealing with their own sense of chaos and loss – are simply out of ideas for what to do.

The Meaning Quotient: a New Concept for Leaders

That’s where meaning comes in. That’s why our discussion was so energizing.

Even in a country like France which most professionals would agree is behind the curve in understanding what it means to develop leaders, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is now a known factor for creating better relationships at the office.

But MQ – Meaning Quotient – was completely new to them. And, in my experience working with leaders across the world, they are not alone.

In their 2011 business strategy book Beyond Performance, McKinsey Senior Partner Scott Keller and Leadership Expert Colin Price point out that when MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work…they tend to see it as ‘just a job’/ paycheck.

But with high MQ, there’s a strong sense of excitement and challenge, a belief that “this matters” and “I can make a difference,” and a freedom to innovate and adapt to do “what’s never been done before.”

Clearly, then, meaning is worth learning more about and embedding more deeply into the day-to-day of our companies.

Leaders, we have the power to give our lives and careers meaning.

“When you’re surrounded by people who share
a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
– Howard Schultz, Starbucks

As with the Lyon CEOs with whom I met, the route we choose towards a fuller life begins within each of us. Not only is this the only way to truly embody meaning in all that we do, but also role modeling what we would love to see more of in our organizations is a sure-fire way to get it.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries cites an example common to many leaders I work with:

As CEO of a large and profitable company, to the outside world, Philip {seemed to} ha{ve} it all.
But all was not what it seemed: his inner world was falling apart.
He felt that life was simply an endless task and felt he was drowning in a sea of other people’s needs.
And because he was never present on the home front – physically or emotionally – his wife left, and his children more or less ignored him.
He felt without hope and wanted a new life.

It’s a hopeful truth that several of the highly successful leaders I work with – partners in upper-end consulting firms, VPs in tech companies and global humanitarian professionals alike – all reach a point of no return when they realize that the “why” they had been working so hard to fulfill up until now far from satisfies their inner longings for meaning.

Yes, the titles of status, multiple homes, and walk-in closets filled with designer goods can feel good – up to a certain point.

But when that’s all we are shooting for, we are setting ourselves up for emptiness indeed.

In his discussions with senior leaders, Kets de Vries found that a common thread emerged: most had a desire to become the best version of themselves.

But how do we get there?

Moving past our current selves and take control by targeting things that we can act on like defining and living our values and purpose is the only way to accomplish this.

Kets de Vries further writes that “life can only be meaningful if we give it meaning.” He breaks it down by noting that meaning applies to how we experience life by our valued goals: does whatever we are doing truly matter to us?

Here are some suggestions Kets de Vries offers on leading a more fulfilling life:

  • Define what makes us feel alive
  • Release the unpleasant relationships or situations around us
  • Convey empathy and compassion by kind deeds
  • Create more meaning at work
  • Be grateful for what you already have

What Predicts a Meaningful Life?

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others,
devote yourself to your community around you, and
devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
– Mitch Albom

Research has found that meaning in life is closely linked with a sense of purpose and direction. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Arash Emamzadeh writes in Psychology Today,

“…despite engaging in activities you consider meaningful (e.g., volunteering or teaching), you may feel your life as a whole is not meaningful.

In addition, people may perceive certain aspects of their worldview or self-view (e.g., occupation, talents, abilities, intimate relationships) as more meaningful than others.”

Meaning is Very Subjective

What may look meaningful to some people may not feel meaningful to us. It’s all about the meaning we give to, well, meaning.

My two little girls are the lights of my life. But I have also set a strong intention to be very present in their lives, which can be challenging at times. If I hadn’t had such a clear intention, then I could easily be one of those folks who claims to be Mom, but who also secretly feels resentful about the time and energy any sweet little being requires.

And while I definitely have my moments (lol), instead, I get to enjoy tremendous meaning with my daughters through actively living out my values of family and motherhood and my purpose of helping these bright lights live their own purposes.

And so it is with all of us: to what degree are we actually giving our attention to what matters most in our lives?

Believe it or not, research has come up with some predictors of a meaningful life, even if as mentioned above, how we each define meaning is indeed subjective.

These predictors are:

  • Existential mattering
  • Coherence
  • A sense of purpose

To Enjoy a Meaningful Life, Ask Deep Questions

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
-Kofi Annan

We all deserve to experience a deeply meaningful life – in the workplace and beyond. In order to enjoy meaning at work and in life, we must first be willing to look within.

We may not think we have time to slow down for the space such contemplation necessitates. But as a single mom and successful business owner completing her second Masters (and buying her first property abroad!), I can promise you that none of these things would be possible for me without my daily quiet time. I would be too off-centered and veering in all directions otherwise. Once we are able to create some quiet moments for ourselves, Emamzadeh proposes a contemplation of some deep questions to gauge where we are on.

  • Existential mattering: If you had never existed, do you think the world would have noticed or cared? Do you believe your existence has value? What impact(s) have you made?
  • Coherence: Does it feel like you’re always in the middle of a windstorm, tossed to and fro in an endless cycle of confusion? Or does it usually seem that all the pieces of life fit together?
  • Purpose: Where is your life headed? Are you aiming for (and committed to) clear goals? Or does life feel fuzzy, like you’re not striving for any particular target?

These questions aren’t meant to be answered once then forgotten.

They are meant to be chewed on, creating space for realizations to come and then more chewing, deeper realizations, etc.

By regularly (and honestly) asking ourselves these questions – through mere reflection or through journaling – we can gain clarity on how meaningful we perceive our life experience to be in the present moment – and over time.

And clarity gives us the power of choice: we can then choose to shift where we put our attention so we can gain greater enjoyment – and meaning – through how we spend our time.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
-Viktor Frankl

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