What brings people together with a special sense of excitement and meaning? What amps up motivation and commitment through the roof? What bonds people into great winning teams? I recently watched two PBS broadcasts about the civil rights movement in the United States, in the early sixties. The many student volunteers who rode buses from northern universities into the far land of Mississippi to engage in voter registration in the June of 1964 faced hostility, violence, and constant threats during a hot and scary summer. And now, decades later, looking back, they report that it was the time of their lives. They say things like, "When it was time to leave and go home, I knew that I'd never have an experience like that again, a sense of doing something to change the world, and a sense of extended family with people I'd probably never see again."
A friend of mine once talked with lots of veterans of World War Two and was surprised that he kept hearing them speak of their wartime experience as "the time of my life." They were being shot at and bombed, under the most difficult daily living conditions they had ever experienced. But they often reminisced about those days as something truly special. They spoke of bonds they made with guys who were very different from them in so many ways, but who became like a band of brothers.
Those two contexts clearly involved (1) a strong sense of purpose, (2) constant danger, and (3) a special bond that seemed to arise out of elements 1 and 2. It could be that from our collective early human history as hunters and gatherers, we developed a special experience of purpose amid danger, and an intensity of commitment in relationship to those who shared that purpose and that threat. It was a matter first of survival, and second, of flourishing. Those who did not bond and arise to overcome the odds did not survive. And we are the inheritors of those survivors.
It could well be that there is a deep motivational mindset that arises in such a context, which allows us, in turn, to rise to the occasion and do great things that go far beyond the mundane, and become almost magical.
You occasionally see it on sports teams, without the extremity of danger confronted by those in the civil rights movement, and those who have fought in wars. I saw in on one particular Notre Dame football team, during my many years there, the team that, interestingly, won the National Championship of 1988. So, it seems possible that the special bonding and motivation that we're talking about depend, not on danger itself, but on a sense of very high stakes. When the stakes are high enough, we respond. And, if that's true, then, in principle, we could create the conditions for this in our work lives. Why should it be that those who came back from the second world war, and those who returned to school or work from The Freedom Summer of 64, should never have that special experience of service again?
A friend just came back from the big rock music festival of the summer, in Dover, Delaware. He said of the 80,000 people around him that "They were all so happy to be there." They wanted to be there. They were there with a purpose. And, he said, "They were a happy bunch, as a result." They were part of something big, something they believed in, and they were there with a commitment that was "all in."
Why can't we create conditions in our companies where nearly everyone feels a sense of purpose, a sense of being part of something big, something that's going to "change the world" for the better in some way that makes them feel "all in"? When the purpose is great enough and the stakes are high enough, it can happen. Then, why do we ever settle for so much less?