May 1, 2002

Assuming Our Duty to Care
I learned with great interest that Richard Wurman, the originator of the infamous TED conferences (technology, entertainment, design) has sold the conference rights to a Brit by the name of Chris Anderson. A long-time TED attendee, Anderson was behind the once wildly successful Future Network.

Never having been able to attend TED, but always fascinated by the amazing conflagration of brilliant minds it attracts in the audience and on the stage, I visited the TED web site (www.ted.com) to learn more about what might be in the works.

At the end of Mr. Anderson’s announcement regarding the 2003 conference, I found something that should provide security to all TED fans and holds valuable insight for all of us practicing leaders. Chris Anderson, after spending 15 million dollars to buy the rights to sponsor TED conferences, signs off in his cover letter as “TED Custodian.” And to let us all know what this title means to him, he provides the following definition … Custodian: n. One who zealously guards and nourishes something of value.

Perhaps it is my undergraduate degree in English or perhaps it is because I have seen how a particular turn of phrase can incite passionate differences in perspectives among even the most like-minded colleagues, but I found myself admiring the simplicity of his self-selected moniker: one who zealously guards and nourishes something of value. I began to wonder how life might be different if all leaders saw themselves as custodians.

Custodian and one of its descendants, custodial, doesn’t shine with much favor in our everyday vocabulary. We think of custodial care as something that gets discussed in not-so-positive terms on The Practice or Law and Order. And most parents, if honest, would probably admit they hope their offspring grow up to be something more than a custodian. Ironically though, I remember the high school custodial staff were the keepers of our school’s history having seen everything (and everyone) come and go at least once and in most cases, more than that.

Let’s dissect the meaning Anderson offers and its potential insights for leaders.

Zealously suggests a level of passion too frequently absent in today’s boardrooms and offices. When was the last time you were zealous about the work you do? Shouldn’t we all be a part of something we care deeply enough about that we would want to approach it with zeal? What would it take for you to be zealous about the work you currently do?

Guards reflects the protection and control of access we associate with feeling secure. I think of the guards around major government buildings who check identification in order to determine if individuals are authorized for entrance. What are the characteristics of the individuals you would feel most compelled to authorize for entrance (or involvement) in the institution you help lead? How is their identification (credentials and commitment) being checked to ensure they should indeed be allowed access?

Merely guarding is not enough, however. We also have to nourish. What a wonderful image that conjures in my mind. If you could create the organizational equivalent of a Recommended Daily Food Pyramid what ingredients would be required to nourish the value provided by your organization? What would only be eaten (used or experienced) in small helpings? In his book, The Power of Purpose, author Richard Leider (www.inventuregroup.com) talks about the importance of having nourishing people in our life if we are to feel fulfilled and happy. Who in your life most nourishes your identity and sense of self? To whom might you provide much needed nourishment?

And finally, the piece de resistance, something of value. It is at this juncture that we meet one of the true tests of leadership, the ability to discern if the organization provides value, to whom it provides or might provide value, or what value might be created in support of its mission and vision. For many reasons, some good and some bad, organizations often measure value simply in the completion of an activity itself … the so-called “activity trap.” Here the logic is “Well we do a lot of stuff so we must be providing value.” The danger is that you and your organization might be spending all your creativity, commitment, and energy doing things that few care about. How nice for you if you do a wonderful job providing the unnecessary and unwanted program or service.

How does the old adage go? If it is worth doing it is worth doing well.

If it is worth providing leadership to than perhaps it should be worth zealously guarding and nourishing. We would all be better served if we only committed ourselves (and our precious time and attention) to something of value and ensured the organizations of which we are a part do the same.

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