A joint study conducted last year by Harvard and Stanford found that
engagement levels typically increase at each rung of the organizational ladder.
At first blush, without even reading the study, you might assume that this is perfectly sensible. I mean, senior leaders make more money, get more time off, have nicer and bigger offices, and have minions to do their bidding. It’s logical that the monarch of even the poorest country would have more reasons to be happy or engaged than any of his/her less well-to-do citizens. Right?
While the trappings of wealth and allure of power might certainly increase leaders’ engagement levels, the study’s key findings show something else:
senior leaders are more engaged because they have more sense of control over their own destinies.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with the faculty and staff of North Arkansas College in the beautiful, historic town of Harrison, Ark., where I met a man named Paul who is approaching his 80th year.
Paul, like many senior leaders, exemplifies engagement.
He gets to work early each morning–often long before his colleagues. Once there, he starts his day by “making the rounds”–checking up on colleagues while walking around the campus like he owns it. In fact, Paul walks through each administrative office room like it’s his name on the outside of the building–instead of L.E. “Gene” Durand for whom it’s named. And like many senior leaders, Paul has a strong sense of pride in his work; his coworkers in fact told me that Paul insists on doing many key tasks himself, refusing to let others in “lesser” roles assist him.
And from talking with Paul, I can attest that he loves his job, loves the people around him, and loves his life.
He also confided in me that some days he thinks about retiring and staying home with his dear wife, but he can’t picture himself doing anything other than what he’s done for years at North Arkansas College. He told me that his joints get stiff in the morning, but the best cure is to just get up and get moving.
What makes Paul unusual is that he’s not the college president.
Nor does Paul sit on the board. He’s not a tenured professor, and I’m not even sure what Paul studied in school…or even whether he attended college.
But North Arkansas College is Paul’s school as well as where he’s building a legacy.
And the work Paul does as a custodian demonstrates that he owns the school. Before the day starts, colleagues told me that Paul walks the grounds and parking lots with a plastic bag, picking up any trash he finds. Another person told me that if “Paul were to see you carrying a chair from one room to another, he would say, ‘Hey now! Let me do that for you!’” And when a window high above the ground floor atrium leaked, it was nearly-80-year-old Paul who got up on the ladder to fix it.
Do you think you have to be a senior leader to be engaged?
Look at Paul’s example. Like engaged senior leaders, Paul owns his destiny. And in doing so, he owns his happiness. He told me: “You’ve heard that you can’t take it with you? But any good pastor will say, ‘No, but you can send it on ahead.’ And that’s just what I’m doing.”
The best senior leaders act like Paul: they exemplify servant-leadership. Think you can’t because you’re in a “lesser” role? You can be a servant-leader and own your engagement regardless of your title.
Recently at the Teen Choice Awards, Aston Kutcher said this about the secret to his success: “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so, opportunities look a lot like work.”
Senior leaders, Kutcher, and Paul understand that personal accountability and ownership define us, not our job titles. Opportunities, indeed, look a lot like work. Likewise, engagement and happiness look a lot like choice.