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Chapter 10: Technique 7: Orchestrating Meaning in the Work Community


Orchestrating meaning involves the leader in creating and communicating meaning to workers about the organization and their joint work (Plas, 1996). Inner leaders concentrate their full attention and that of their work community on the vision they have created for their community, that is on what they—as leaders—think the vision means and the value they attach to it. Engineering meaning takes place via every action leaders take, every word spoken and every decision made. The most visible expression of community meaning-making is in the vision statement leaders create and promulgate throughout their work community.

Making-meaning is a symbolic role that applies unique meanings to words, objects, ideas, work processes and policies making them specific to that work community in a given time frame. The task is one of reflecting core values in the community’s icons, its symbols of itself (Peters and Austin, 1985). These symbols become referents to desired performance and to relationships with others. They are based on the inner leader’s values. These symbols define the true meaning and character of the work community more than do organization charts or policy manuals.

The Technique of Meaning-Making

The scope of the vision statement sets the work community’s outer limits of possibility. A vision is a present declaration about the community’s intended future that also connects members with their collective past. Visions are charged with meaning and have meaning only as followers see them as true—both today and tomorrow. These truths about their collective future must be grounded in basic human truth. Life, liberty, justice, unity, and the quest for satisfaction and happiness are examples of such truths. They compose the values-set guiding collective work effort. Values like “being the best,” or seeking “high quality,” or “excellence” or “broad market control” are not of the same caliber. In creating a meaning structure based on the leader’s core values, inner leaders demonstrate several common behavior patterns. Bennis and Nanus (1985) suggest they include managing attention, making meaning, engendering trust, and acquiring self-knowledge (Carson, 2001).

Leadership in the middle of the corporation is about the sharing of intentions. Engineering meaning in groups is more likely to be helpful when it comes from inner leaders with strong character. These leaders attend to choices made by all persons in relationship with them. Meaning-making tasks are about persuasion, about right or wrong, about finding shared understanding (Bennis, 2001). They are not about coercion or force. Inner leaders train, educate, and coach followers in vision-directed tasks. They ascribe a compelling meaning to the common work, one that gives followers a reason to self-motivate and get involved in appropriate networks. Once understood, this common understanding of why the community and its work are important frees followers from situational constraints that may hamper their growth or transformation to full effectiveness. Followers respond to their leader’s values and the meaning they attach to actions and events as the leaders base their leadership on wholeness, shared values, and concern for the human side of life—not just on the materialistic paradigm characteristic of past leadership models (Caill, 2000).

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