Are You Building a Cathedral?

March 23, 2010
Main image blog

Each of those men performed the same task, but they had different perspectives on why they were doing it...

Last month I attended a professional development and networking luncheon. (It was more interesting than it sounds.) Something from that lunch has stuck with me – and I don’t mean the dozens of announcements or painfully basic tips on getting involved in social media.

During a conversation about the characteristics that make up a leader, the facilitator of our discussion told a story: 

A woman was walking down the street and saw three men, each one digging a hole in the ground. The woman stopped and asked the first man, “What are you doing?” That man didn’t hesitate at all. He answered, “I’m digging a hole.” The woman moved on to the next man and asked him, “What are you doing?” This man looked at his toolbox, then back at the woman. Then he said, “I’m building something.” The woman walked a bit further and reached the third man. She asked, “What are you doing?” That man leaned back on his shovel and stared into space for just a moment before replying, “I’m creating a cathedral.”

Each of those men performed the same task, but they had different perspectives on why they were doing it. The point of that story, as I’m sure you can figure out, is that a leader is someone who not only completes the task at hand, but also understands how it fits into the larger goal and shares the vision of that bigger picture.

I left that luncheon a little disappointed, as I’d hoped to take away some more tangible tips for positioning myself as a leader. But later, as I sifted through the stack of business cards I’d collected that day, I kept coming back to that phrase: creating a cathedral. I thought about creating a cathedral and what that means to me. I thought about it as I listened to Matchbox 20 sing about being the head honcho. I thought about it as I read blog posts by stay-at-home moms who consider themselves family managers. I thought about it as I looked at my to-do list and wished I could delegate the less fun tasks to someone else . . . anyone else.

And I realized I’d learned more about leadership than I’d initially thought. Leadership is more than being in charge, being the boss of somebody. It’s more than a fancy office or an impressive title. It’s more than having underlings follow your directions; it’s more than having underlings. (Who calls them “underlings,” anyway?) Leadership is about stewardship. It’s about understanding that each item on our to-do list is part of a goal, a vision. Even when it’s not fun. Or seemingly important. Or glamorous, rewarding, gratifying. And it’s about doing those things well, because the bigger picture is more important than the tedium, the boredom, the sweat, the tears.

It’s remembering that writing 300 press releases in one month, while repetitive, is my contribution to the success of 650 small businesses across this country. It’s remembering that balancing my checkbook, though boring and full of math, is the accountability that keeps my family within the budget that will free us from debt. It’s remembering that changing diapers, while at times disgusting, is a gesture of love to my daughter. I become a leader – even when I’m just leading myself – when I treat my tasks as part of the bigger picture that I believe in. And – no big surprise here – it’s when I do just that, that those tasks become more interesting and more meaningful.

Your to-do list may look different than mine, but we can all create a cathedral with even our most mundane tasks.

What is your cathedral today?