There’s a famous tale of a traveler who came across three men working on the side of the road. The traveler asked the three, “what are you doing?”

The first man, crouched low to the ground and working slowly, answered, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.”

The second man, half-standing and working moderately fast, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.”

The third man, standing tall and working hardest, answered with a smile, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral.”

The leader in you should take two lessons from this story. The first, and most obvious, is that the three men, despite doing the exact same work, have three remarkably different perspectives. The first man, while having a powerful purpose in his family, does not seem fulfilled or connected to his work. The second man may be the most miserable—he lacks purpose; he’s just building a wall. The third has purpose larger than himself, and you can sense it with his smile, his energy, and his assuredness.

The second lesson is that their boss didn’t do a very good job of communicating the overall vision. Had a compelling vision been clear from the outset, all three would have answered with a smile, all three would have been working hard, and all three would have spoken of something much larger than what’s in front of them—a vision of what could be: a great cathedral.

A lengthy process, a long game, can be difficult to navigate, especially if you are leading others through it. It can be challenging to continuously find ways to motivate your people to keep going. Many leaders use short-term incentives such as money, promotions, and social praise. But these have a very short shelf life and can be quickly forgotten in favor of wanting more. To believe in and trust the process, your team needs their cathedral.

But while the most effective way to motivate yourself and your team is to lay out your grand vision of the cathedral, some tasks may not lend themselves well to this method. While running a restaurant full of college-aged employees, of course I had to rely on many of those immediate, short-term incentives. But because a restaurant doesn’t have a “cathedral” for most part-time employees, I tried to paint a picture of their own personal cathedral. Every day, I spoke to them individually. I sought to understand what their true goals and values were. I was honest with each of them that the restaurant might not (and should not) be their top priority, but the habits they built there, the bricks they were laying every single day, would carry them through school and towards their dreams. By reaching deeper than what was immediately in front of them, I was able to motivate them much more effectively than any money or status could.

When leading people at a restaurant or a desk job day by day, when walking 500 miles step by step, when writing 100 essays in 100 days word by word, or when constructing a building brick by brick, you must be crystal clear on why you are doing it in the first place. Don’t look at it as just walking, just writing, or just laying bricks.

Envision your cathedral coming together. Brick by brick. 

As Friedrich Nietzsche said, anyone “who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Become a Better Leader

The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.

This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.

Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership

Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.