Posted by: Bill von Achen | May 7, 2010

“I’m Building a Cathedral!”–The Role of Purpose in Motivation

At one of our recent Executive Book Club breakfasts, we discussed Daniel Pink’s new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. That discussion, along with an e-mail from my friend Tim, has given me a fresh perspective on the role that purpose plays in motivating us, and our employees, to excel in our businesses and in our professional and personal lives.

If you haven’t read Drive, Pink dismisses the effectiveness of most methods of motivation used in today’s challenging business world, branding traditional “carrot and stick” approaches as out of date and out of touch with what is necessary to motivate people in a modern work environment. Instead, he proposes that the most effective techniques available to us now are comprised of three primary elements, autonomy, mastery and purpose. To get the most from people, Pink argues, make sure that your motivation efforts incorporate all three of these elements.

For those who participated in our breakfast discussion about Drive, the motivation element that elicited the most discussion, and the greatest difference of opinion, was purpose. One participant suggested that having a higher purpose (for example, reducing human suffering through medical research) was key to any company’s success. For another, the term ‘purpose’ was interchangeable with ‘goal,’ and that having clear strategic goals was an essential element in keeping his company’s executives and employees focused.

And yet a third participant argued that a business’ only true purpose was to generate a profit for the company’s shareholders, and that all other lofty statements about purpose were mere covers for the real motivation behind building a successful company.

Despite the extended discussion on the issue, I remained skeptical about the importance of purpose in motivation. And then, just yesterday, my friend Tim e-mailed me the following story:

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

“Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.”

With startling clarity, this story illustrates that purpose has the power to transform not only our attitude about the work that we do, but the quality of our work as well. And if purpose can help one transcend even a physically laborious task as that undertaken by the three masons in our story, then imagine the impact that clarity of purpose can have on our work, and on that of our employees.

So what purpose drives you to achieve the results you seek in your life? And, if you’re a business owner or executive, do you have a compelling purpose to engage and motivate your employees?  Contribute your thoughts and ideas here.  And thanks, Tim!


  1. Purpose was none of the above as an absolute; it is unique to every associate and trying to make it a universal denominator only frustrates the masses. The best leaders find ways to discover the “purpose” in each associate that drives their motivation to the highest level of productivity. Purpose drives motivation so that goals can be reached.

    • Greg:

      I completely agree with you that purpose must be individualized in order to be meaningful to employees, and I think that almost all of us would agree, including Daniel Pink (Drive) and Marcus Buckingham (First, Break All the Rules), to name two recent authors we’ve read in our book club.

      At the same time, I believe the institutions, including businesses and other for-profit enterprises, benefit from having a compelling purpose in order to provide a framework within which individual purpose can be realized. From the software engineers at Google to the teachers in our classrooms to the relief workers at the Red Cross, there is a wonderful synergy that can be realized when organizational purpose and individual purpose come together.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thats all very well when a business and an employee have an overlapping purpose. But there are many people who derive meaning in life from things that arent at all related to their work, and are even at odds with work. For example, having a family. Lets face it, quite often the best work option a person has is one which is not enjoyable and entails no sense of satisfaction.

    • Everybody is always better if they feel passionate about the work. If a person is not passionate about the work – they should quit and looks for something that “rocks their boat”. Life is worth living with passion and if there is no satisfaction… it is definitely time to look for another job!

  3. […] If someone’s eyes light up when she talks about some project she worked on, I don’t really care whether this was her pet project or something she is proud of at work. What really matters is that her eyes lit up, that she is interested, that she sees herself as a Cathedral Builder. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: