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Work is love made visible

The famous quote “work is love made visible” from the Lebanese poet Kahil Gilbran is often quoted and often misunderstood. It is so often equated with the woolly and fluffy ‘soft skills’ which sound and feel ‘nice’ but which don’t drive impact. This is a fallacy. As intentional a body as the World Economic Forum noted at a recent Davos summit that emotional intelligence ranks among the two top attributes required of today’s effective leaders.

The remainder of the quote might raise questions of realism. It goes: “Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” While the second sentence might carry philosophical force, it could be argued that, for many if not most of us, it is not a tenable option in practice. But this does not lessen – rather it reinforces – the potency of the main phrase.

For me, Gilbran, in his own distinct style, is urging us to contemplate the place of purpose and meaning in our working lives. Not only do I know this to be vital for my own resilience, but I meet it frequently in my executive coaching practice.

Carol Pemberton in her insightful book on resilience, identifies ‘meaning’ as one of her eight core dimensions of resilience. This particular dimension is often more subtle than it might appear at first sight.

A helpful visualisation has been provided by Jennifer Moss-Breen via her notion of the purpose sweetspot.

Her separation of these foundational components of purpose, and their corresponding overlaps, can be enormously helpful in identifying their relative contributions to our core sense of purpose. Where a four-way sweetspot does not emerge in a work setting, the model can provide insights into how these dimensions might be attended to in other dimensions of life.

Hubert Joly, former Chairman and CEO of Best Buy, in a 2021 interview with McKinsey & Co with reference to his book The Heart of Business, reflects powerfully on the ways in which we can “unleash human magic”. He cites Gilbran, commenting “Work can be part of our calling, part of our search for meaning, why we exist.”

I could reflect at length on how this has manifest in my own experience and for those whom I’ve been privileged to serve as a coach. Perhaps I’ll return to this theme in a future blog or publication. For now, I think it might be more compelling to offer you the first hand experiences of some highly-successful global thought leaders to serve as a focus for reflection.

Their thoughts feature in a compelling compendium of essays, Work is Love Made Visible, taking its inspiration from Gilbran’s quote. In this collection, Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith and Sarah McArthur pose some challenging questions to their willing interlocutors.  What is our purpose? Once we know, how do we pursue it? What disruptions might this involve? Are we up for the upheaval? Their undistilled answers lend us the wisdom of their experiences, their examples, their inspiration. These insights are worthy of our serious reflection.

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