Blog: Top stories about greatness and purpose at work

Life @ Work

Top stories about greatness and purpose at work

Here's a look at what lessons today's people leaders can learn from global history.
Top stories about greatness and purpose at work

When all is said and done, love and compassion is all that matters. The trouble lies during the saying and the doing, when we might lose sight of eternity, unless we are conscious of our humility.

José Silva Guerra mastered that wisdom. He was a mason who helped build the capital of Brazil, inaugurated in 1960. Only a few months earlier, Mr. Guerra was working on the roof of the inverted dome that would house the representatives of the Brazilian parliament. Oscar Niemeyer, the brilliant Brazilian architect noted for his round shapes built in concrete, had designed the inverted dome; open to the skies to inspire open minds.

Enthused by his humble role in helping to create a daring capital for the young country, Mr. Guerra, with his mason´s pencil, as if digging with Seamus Heaney´s pen, scribbled his thoughts on the walls of a small room over the house of representatives’ rooftop.  That room would remain sealed for six decades.

When a maintenance team defiled the room they were taken aback by Mr. Guerra´s scribbled message. In a state of awe comparable only to that of an archeologist when first reaching a pharaoh’s remains, the new masons called in their supervising architect. The cogency of Mr. Guerra´s six decades old message filled the air:  the mason had prayed for the upcoming representatives to honor their roles and be compassionate with future generations of Brazilians.

Mr. Guerra's now grown-up daughter Francisca was also brought in. She wept when she recognized her father's handwriting and signature and realized the greatness of her father´s gesture while at work. She also handled a few of the tools her father had left behind, as well as his lunchbox, from where he must have eaten the food that her mother would have then cooked at home for him.

We now know that too many of Brazil's representatives failed to live to Mr. Guerra´s expectations. Yet, that is a matter for the police and judiciary to deal with.

What should concern us, as people in management, is that on that rooftop of the house of representatives in Brasília, there was once a lonely worker who was raptured by the élan of collaborating in a new greatness and had the wherewithal to record his feelings on a wall of the room he knew would be sealed off. That gesture was at the core of purpose, as he perceived it to be. He knew his role in sharing in the greatness of the moment was ending; yet, he also knew that he was part of something greater than he was and that uttering his voice then mattered, at least to him.

With no sense of purpose towards greatness, work becomes similar to rowing in the galleys.

Except in that Mr. Guerra´s is a real story, it is similar to the apocryphal one of the sweeper at Cape Canaveral, who also saw himself as doing his bit for America in delivering a man to the moon as he swept the floor. Mr. Guerra´s story is also similar to the one about the bricklayer who believed he was helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral in London. Mr. Guerra was not only applying concrete in Brasília any more than the Cape Canaveral sweeper was only sweeping or the bricklayer at St. Paul´s cathedral was only laying bricks.  

These stories remind us that, only when workers are deprived of their purpose in greatness do managers need the array of incentives and performance evaluations that pollute our business school classrooms.

Mr. Guerra was free, he felt great to work where he did, and shared the greatness with us, lest we forget that, when all is said and done, love and compassion is all that matters.

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Topics: Life @ Work, #Work Culture

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