Building a cathedral

Photo credit: Columbia University

I am going up and up and up 31, 32, 33 bing… I get out of the lift and am struck by the stunning views of Central Park and the New York skyline.  I have arrived at the offices of Willie Pietersen, Professor at Columbia University Business School.

The night before I picked up his book Strategic Learning and it fell open on page 161, in bold type was the heading Building a Cathedral, well doesn’t that sounds like us?  So, it goes like this…

A man walking along the sidewalk comes across three workers toiling away at a construction site. He stops, and asks the first worker, “What are you doing? The worker answers, I’m digging a hole.” He poses the same question to the second worker, who replies, “I’m laying bricks.” Finally, he turns to the third workers, “And what are you doing?” The third worker answers, “I’m building a cathedral.”

This gives meaning to everyone’s role, no matter how humble. It enables the leader to say to the first worker, “you’re not just digging a hole. You are helping to create strong foundations for this cathedral, so it will stand for a thousand years.” And to the second worker, “You are not just laying bricks. You are helping to create a beautiful façade for this cathedral, so it will be admired by all who see it”. According to Professor Pieterson, an essential task of a leader is to be able to describe “the cathedral” – the goal to be achieved.

Many of us are ‘building the cathedral’. For some this will be incredibly hard as they are faced with the day to day recovery struggle (I have heard it referred to as ‘death by a thousand cuts’), so it falls to those of us not so burdened to rally and support the effort.

Howard Gardner describes a leader this way: “A leader is someone who is able, through persuasion and personal example, to change the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of those whom he (sic) seeks to lead”. Therefore, I would suggest that in our Canterbury recovery we can’t look solely to a few identifiable leaders to be our ‘recovery leaders’.  (Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future, p.7 Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006) I would argue that we all have a role to play in helping each other, the rest of New Zealand and the world to ‘see the cathedral’. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to lose sight of the fact that each and every one of us has some influence to change thoughts, feelings and behaviour that will set us in the right direction – we all have a role.

Professor Pietersen and I spoke for over an hour on many issues, one of which being the importance of morale. This starts me thinking… Simple things such as ringing your aunt and uncle in Christchurch more often, getting on a plane and popping buy, buying goods that support Christchurch businesses, lending an empathetic ear, sending a winter wellness package to friends or family, joining our Red Cross outreach volunteers – a million small messages of encouragement will go a long way to strengthen morale this winter…

It is time to leave.  Professor Pietersen, stands up and I realise he is a tall man, much taller that most and I leave with the distinct impression that people who meet him find themselves looking up to him in more ways than one.

I am out on the hot footpath walking down Madison Avenue (having just missed Madonna on a shopping trip I later find out in the tabloids); I notice a shop with security guards and a locked entrance. A curious looking place so I investigate. I find that it is an historical letters and documents boutique.

In the centre of the window, flanked by Charles Darwin, Sitting Bull, Ghandi and Chekhov is our Sir Edmond Hilary – signed, selling for a pretty penny and staring out at me. There was a quote from him saying he considered himself an ‘ordinary man with ordinary qualities’.  I found this symbolic, we too have a mountain to climb, and we too will get there through our ‘ordinary people’ stepping up and doing extraordinary things.

7 thoughts on “Building a cathedral

  1. Lovely post, Elizabeth. Also reminded me of the janitor JFK once met in the corridor at Cape Canaveral. He asked the man what was his job; the man replied “I am helping to put a man on the moon.”

  2. Ross, it’s like the adage, if you want something done, give to a busy person. I like the thought is leadership shared, not in an anarcho-collectivist sense, but us all, which of runs counter to the prevailing model of “someone has to be in charge, and seen to be in charge” model that government’s apply to recovery

  3. Thanks Elizabeth for sharing with us these great lessons called life eh. Hey stop by “4 and 54” on 8th Ave and 51 st tell the boys in the house to give you a cup of FDNY’s best COOOOFFEEE.

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