Building Communities Of Passion

Last week we made the case of putting people first. Today we will look at how these wonderful employees can band together to build communities of passion. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’m a bit of a romantic, not the roses and wine sort, but the soppy idealist sort. Come on Mark, you might say, you can’t really create organisations where ordinary people come first, not unless you are starting from scratch. Maybe Whole Foods is into this love thing (refer to Love & Purpose), but that’s because its founder, John Mackey, was a hippie and is still running the place. How would your theories work in a tradition-encrusted organization with an entrenched hierarchy? And what can you do if you are a mere team leader, rather than a General Manager? Sure, I want to pump up the passion in my organization, but it’s hard to do when you are buried in layers of bureaucracy.

I get that. Your skepticism is warranted. Old organisations are tough to change, but it can happen, and it can start anywhere, even with your team. Despite the barriers of orthodoxy, isolation and irrelevance, there are reasons to be hopeful. Many CEOs understand, at last, that to build an organization that’s fit for the future, you must first make it fit for human beings. One where passion can flourish.

Passion is often misconstrued. Often people will say: “Offer me something I’m passionate about and I’ll show up with all of my energy, effort and care.”

That’s a great way to hide.

Because nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it. Perhaps, in concept, it’s worthy, but as soon as you closely examine the details and the pitfalls, it’s easy to decide it’s better to wait for a better offer.

What about considering the opposite?

Seth Godin counters: “Offer me a chance to contribute, and I’ll work hard on it, with focus, and once I begin to make progress, I’ll become passionate about it.”

Work before passion measures our craft in terms of contribution, not in an idealized model of perfection. Passion comes from feeling needed, from approaching mastery, from doing work that matters.

What’s been lacking is a way of multiplying our efforts—a collaborative endeavour large enough to overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo. Is this possible? Can we scale up our research? Absolutely. Consider: there were 3,000 co-authors on the paper that confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. There are many lessons that could be drawn from the experiment in bottom-up change, but let me focus on two.

First, if you are a formally appointed leader, and you want to turn sheep into shepards, you have to take off your leadership mantle and say to people, “I don’t have a plan, what’s yours?” That is humbling, but it’s the only way to release the latent talents within your organization.

Second, you have to let people find the work that best suits their interests. This is the key to building a community of passion. When you force people into slots, you get slot-shaped contributions, you don’t get bold and astonishing contributions. If you want the unexpected, you have to give people the freedom to do the unexpected.

Now, can you run an airline this way (Southwest can…)? I don’t know, but I bet you can run parts of any organization like this. One thing I am sure about: if you want to take full advantage of the extraordinary talents that exist in your organization, you’ll need to ask yourself each day, “What can I do to make this place feel less like a hierarchy and more like a community?”

A movement takes courage, compassion and contrarian thinking. But it also requires communi­ty—an alliance of activists who understand the power of collective action. All of us enjoy learning from vanguard companies like Haier, but such organizations are still remarkably rare. By working together, could we light the fires of management innovation in thousands of organizations? Again, I don’t know, but I feel the only way to honour the legacy of our forebears is to try.

Let me close with a quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate. It’s simple and powerful advice for anyone who cares about improving the human condition: “Think higher, feel deeper.” Now that’s how you start a movement!

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