The Leader’s Search for Meaning


No, the title of this week’s blog is not some thinly veiled reference to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (although it is a powerful book that I would highly recommend). Rather, it is a nod to a basic tenet my organization uses in its work with children and their families — that all behavior has meaning. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. That concept doesn’t just apply to kids and families. It applies to every individual you are attempting to lead.

All behavior has meaning. That is not to say the meaning is always obvious, only that it is always there. Given that, what should you as a leader do if you are trying to influence someone whose behavior makes no sense to you? For starters, and perhaps counter-intuitively, don’t focus on the behavior itself. You have to search for the meaning. Look for what is going on underneath the behavior. A few likely places to explore:

• Is there a system that is rewarding the behavior or penalizing the individual if they do not act in a particular way? Systems quickly become invisible in organizations but still have a powerful influence and may cause people to act in ways that, on the surface, seem illogical. The best way to identify a (formal or informal) system is to look around and see if multiple people are responding in a similar manner. If so, it is probably a systems issue and the leader needs to address the cause rather than trying to repeatedly redirect the symptoms.

• Point out to the individual what you are seeing/experiencing, and ask if that is their intent. This pulls the focus away from the behavior itself (and any corresponding defensiveness) and opens the door to a conversation of what is prompting a particular action — be it frustration, anxiety, misperceptions, or totally unrelated stressors. This approach helps raise the individual’s awareness of the impact of their actions and gives them a chance to self-correct their behaviors.

• Try being curious. “I wonder if…” is not making a judgment about a specific behavior. You are simply suggesting possible scenarios to explain why someone is taking a particular action, which allows the individual to correct your perception if it is inaccurate, and helps you better understand what is going on underneath of behavior.

Don’t think a leader should have to go to all of this effort? Look at it this way — meaning fuels action. That fuel can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, pushing against the leader or helping propel the leader’s vision forward. Rather than wasted energy, a leader’s search for meaning may provide just the boost needed to launch the entire organization toward success.

Search on.

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