Kenneth Clark makes a great comment in his Civilisation series about twelfth century cathedral building. His comment is that these huge mountains of stone went up very quickly for their time - often in a single life time. And to achieve that, the skilled craftsmen who designed and organized the work went from project to project around Europe “… like a school of dolphins”. This is more amazing, considering the steep learning curve that they needed to overcome to produce designs that would last and to get unskilled people to build them in teams.
It seems like quite a contrast to modern day assembly line organizational problems, where workers are forced to specialize on given tasks. These folks look more like zombies than playful dolphins. And they do rebel! Yet, 20th century assembly line production was a great step forward in efficiency and quality. Manufactured products are made faster, cheaper and often better than they can be by craftsmen working without the benefit of a system.
So — where does that leave us? Will there always be a zombilike quality to modernity? It is a common thread to pine for more “engagement” at work that moves staff from zombie to dolphin. Anton Frankeiss’s short article offers a nice example. Anton makes the good point, however, that the engagement starts with a message that inspires a response. For that reason, we should spend a bit of time thinking about how that sort of message looks. The more we can reproduce the look, the more we can produce engagement and the less we need to rely on coercion. The less we live in zombie land.
As Anton argues, these messages are not “orders” or “instructions” or “plans”. As Simon Sinek points out, Martin Luther King did not inspire by declaring “I have a plan!” They must open the mind of the target group to see and aspire to a higher standard. The cathedral makers had this experience, believing in their mission to make God’s presence felt in the community. Given the transience and conflict that had marked the previous centuries, this was no doubt a joyful challenge. There must have been an incredible eagerness to learn, driving the projects forward.
This is a leadership challenge of the first order. One that we would do well to appreciate for its importance to society as well as its subtlety. Unless, of course, you prefer living in zombieland.