By Ian Chisholm

When we first heard the simple expression “You are the Work” it seemed an obvious, innocent and familiar theme.

Being in the field of leadership development, we often remind others and ourselves that in addition to the demands of our jobs – meetings, tasks, assignments, projects – it would also be wise to build in some time to work on ourselves: learn something new, challenge ourselves, express something creatively, or even just take time to read, think or rest. Take a message like this on board a little or a lot, and any of us start moving in a good direction. A good reminder. A comfortable stretch.

But “You are the Work” is one of those phrases that keeps beckoning at you – the kind you repeat to yourself at the bus stop. Our safe, original interpretation doesn’t really do it justice.

The word “The” is a major clue that there might be some mental model shifting that needs to happen. A more accurate phrase to describe the nudge that we have been providing to our clients is really something like: “You are also important – if there is time, when the corporate priorities have been accomplished.”

Not quite as catchy, somehow. Certainly not worthy of a T-shirt. If we really thought about the implications of taking a phrase like “You are the Work” on board, it might change how we position our identity with the potential of what we do.

When taken to the nth degree, it means that each of us is THE most important piece of work we will ever be responsible for. Any of those things that we thought were The Work are really just external opportunities to test our internal operating system in the world (and engage fully in the ongoing process of designing it further.)

Meetings become opportunities to connect with others. Tasks are a chance to demonstrate that we keep our word, fully – even in the presence of time and cost constraints. Assignments become a chance for us to understand new realms and develop those practices that allow us to be more fully who we are. Projects become another chance to strive for a masterpiece.

“You are the Work” might sit uncomfortably with the “service above self” aficionados as far too self-centered, self-absorbed and self-serving. After all, this sort of mental model means that we are more important than the jobs we hold or the organizations we work for. And that is heresy of the highest order. If we buy into this narcissism, the work will surely suffer. The world will surely suffer. Or will it?

It would seem that many of the current mental models influencing work uphold vast overextension, personal compromise, gross imbalance and self-sacrifice. So before it is disregarded, take a look at the quality of work that would come about when a focus on self is at the core. People would engage each other, properly. People would be accountable for their work products, on time and on budget. People would have an appetite for learning and making themselves more valuable. People would ask for feedback and use it to strive for finer and finer results. People would begin to choose challenges worthy of who they are.

And when individuals working this way come together, what happens in terms of meeting the core purpose of organizations? Mindful, principled and deeply meaningful work. Hmmm. Just what the world needs more of.

 


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

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