Posted in People by Harsha on August 15, 2015

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It is hard to capture the impact that someone has had on an organization or society for 16+ years, without being poetic or glowing or both. There have been some great articles written about Jon Stewart and Leadership like here and here. The authors have done well in capturing how Jon did it … i.e. demonstrating leadership … but they don’t tell us why. Why did Jon Stewart do what he did? Why did he exhibit traits of a “servant leader“, hire & promote talented people, thank his entire staff, yet become embarrassed being thanked by Stephen Colbert, during his last show?


I think it’s because he understands “Meaning” – connecting what he does, with a purpose. Let’s not overthink this, as it might render Meaning meaningless. So here is a simple way to understand this concept. It isn’t my idea, rather it’s his idea, which I like. Let me paraphrase a story he often shares…

At the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, a business leader asked why a “mystic” was at that meeting. After all, aren’t mysticism and philosophy unrelated and especially irrelevant, to business? The response was interesting. The business leader’s company made computers. So they talked about the purpose of making computers. Well, the purpose would be to make money by building useful machines for users, right? But let’s dig deeper; much deeper. Computers let people be creative, innovative, nimble and successful. If the outcome of making computers is that artists can express themselves inventively, bankers can move capital around the world quickly, and entrepreneurs can run businesses successfully, then isn’t the core purpose … the reason … for making computers be to ensure the well-being of people who use them? Isn’t this what a mystic, a yogi or a guru wants? The computer maker and the mystic both have the same purpose and so that’s why a mystic was attending a business meeting in Davos.

We must understand this deep concept of Meaning. It is positive, but not sappy and definitely not altruistic. When we ask why and answer by saying “To ensure the well-being of people we serve, people we work with and people we lead”, we then will enjoy meaningful lives at work and outside of it. We will build products that are harmless to the planet, we will pay people fairly, and lead people with conviction.

But we mostly find the exact opposite in practice. We are well acquainted when Meaning is absent from our lives, and when we don’t think about business this deeply. If we define Meaning only as profit, then paradoxically it is bad for business. Clearly, people are not satisfied with just profit. People don’t just want more profit, but want all of it. We then end up doing cruel things to each other like paying women 73c on the dollar v. men and firing people for who they love. These actions make work meaningless. In the US, it takes the form of only 31.9 % of people being engaged at work, because their leaders are disengaged as well. Gallup says people leaders account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores, and we fail 82% of the time to choose people who are capable of leading others. If we have disengaged people and leaders at work, then we know it reduces productivity and our ability to innovate and execute. Traditional training hasn’t fixed this issue.

So, making ourselves think about the well-being of other people drives the good things up (engagement, innovation and profit) and the bad things down (attrition, stagnation and cost). Meaning sustains organizations, because it sustains the people who work in it. So if the “product” of a profitable show like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is to give people the ability to think for themselves – for the sake of their well-being – then while you may not remember Jon Stewart’s antics 10 years from now, you will remember how it changed how you think. That kind of impact is sustainable and long-lasting for both Comedy Central and for Jon Stewart (profits from syndicated re-runs). That is not just being poetic or glowing. That is good business.

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