Your Real Work as a Leader: A sense of vocation

“I love what I do!” I have come to realize that there are a lot of people who cannot say that- folk for whom their working life is something to get done so that they can carry on with what really matters to them.

I believe in the message that is at the heart of our company, TomorrowToday. “There is a better way of doing things.” To have the opportunity to be engaged at the very cutting edge of such thinking, across global borders and with all kinds of industries and sectors, is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility. It is a responsibility I accept with relish. It makes me want to learn more, see more, improve, grow and consistently bring my ‘A game’. Sometimes when the juices are flowing, I also want to talk more but have come to understand that maybe I need to talk less!

I get to visit interesting places and meet wonderful people- many of whom are the unsung heroes that sacrifice willingly and make a difference daily. I get invited in to watch, ask, participate and learn. And then, to top it all, I get to share that which I have been given through such encounters. What a privilege! If I receive any applause or compliments, the reality is, there is an army behind me more deserving of such feedback and recognition. An army of teachers, mentors and others who, through their thinking, acting, example and wisdom have been the ones that have ‘coloured my picture’.

All this got me thinking about the difference between avocation and vocation. The insightful words of poet Robert Frost bring a degree of clarity in bringing the two – avocation and vocation, together:

‘But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.’

Avocation can be understood as ‘that which one does’ whilst vocation is something to which one feels called. Vocation sits at an altogether deeper level and when tapped into, provides a source of direction and motivation. For some their vocation is all too apparent whilst for others it is the result of deep exploration and self-awareness. The tragedy is that many go through life preoccupied with a sense of avocation that serves to keep them from their vocation. How often have you heard someone say, “I really wanted to be a teacher (or artist or whatever) but I was compelled to become an accountant”? It speaks of a life lived down a path poorly chosen and is usually filled with regret and sometimes resentment.


Sometimes, of course, it is a whole lot easier to fall into an avocation. It is more convenient, more practical and conforms to the expectations surrounding us. It is altogether understandable and so with a sigh and shrug we get on with the routine, do what is pragmatic and fulfill our responsibilities. Often we are not really aware what our true vocation is and should it only come into focus once an alternative course has been set, it takes enormous courage to change tack and begin afresh.

Internet Solutions have a wonderful mantra: Do what you love; love what you do. That about sums it up. How do we create a workplace culture where we have people who can say that? How do we honour our people in such a way that we are constantly encouraging them to explore and find their vocation, even if that means they have to leave? We should never look to our work as the source of meaning; rather we bring meaning to that which we do. Finding meaning is our responsibility and understanding.  It means that authentic meaning and purpose can be found no matter what the task or work.

It is said, rightly so in my opinion, that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. Part of creating a healthy culture within our work environment is to actively work to link avocation and vocation. It is never easy but it is always possible. It always starts at ‘the top’ given that culture is a leadership responsibility. It starts with an awareness and willingness to intentionally pursue this agenda. It will be nuanced by the context in which you operate and the situation in which you find yourself. It will be influenced and impacted by culture and as such has to be discovered and nurtured rather than dictated and forced. It has to be ‘invited’.

Invitational leadership suggests that it is the leader’s responsibility to create an ‘inviting environment’ – one that extracts the very best from others. If others are not producing their best, the responsibility for such rests with leadership. That can be a tough message for leaders to hear. However, when leaders understand the link between avocation and vocation, and when they accept responsibility for the culture of their organization – or what Howard Schultz of Starbucks refers to as, ‘the smell of the place’ – it all starts to make perfect sense. With such grounding, doing this important work doesn’t need the complexity that it is often given by over-zealous consultants. Nor should it fall prey to the measures and metrics that in reality tend to take us further from the desired place, rather than deliver it! Common sense, authentic conversations and courage serve us best when we determine to walk this pathway. It is rooted in an ability to understand and act on our humanity, to see others – truly see them- and to pay attention to what is happening around us.

The intentionality that leaders need in creating such an environment can be better served by understanding the ‘circle of courage’. Researchers Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern in their book, ‘Reclaiming Youth at Risk’ study the child rearing practices of Native Americans and the inherent tribal wisdom. The Circle of Courage was a framework used to articulate what they found and is helpful when thinking about a work environment and how best to bring together avocation and vocation. The Circle of Courage highlights four key areas needed for healthy tribes (or in our case) healthy work places. The four areas are:

  • Belonging: an ability to create a sense of being part of a whole.
  • Generosity: an awareness of the need to share what I know and have for the benefit of others.
  • Mastery: knowing and acquiring the necessary skill-sets to enable the collective to not only survive, but ultimately, to thrive.
  • Independence: the maturity to accept being held responsible for the consequences of my actions

In TomorrowToday we have worked extensively with the Circle of Courage and have found it to be a dynamic and practical framework in which to evaluate and transform the work environment – the ‘smell of the place’! Of course there are many other good frameworks but as a leader you need to find such a framework when intentionally working in the area of organizational culture.

Finding and staying true to one’s vocation will take courage and, most likely, sacrifice. The courage and sacrifice might be that of the parent or boss as you support someone in their quest to live out of a sense of vocation. People who do so are the ones who change things. They are the ones who change the status quo and who deliver when others didn’t believe it was possible. This would be true of not only individuals but also of entire companies that are able to imbue their people with a sense of vocation. When we conduct those value assessments throughout our companies the results always show the need to respect others and show dignity. The results always call for integrity, honesty, a sense of togetherness and a sense of contributing to something that really matters. Why are we surprised by such outcomes? Why do we need surveys to tell us what we already know? Why do we not make sure we do all we can to deliver on such expectations and hope?

We need to understand the difference between avocation and vocation.

We need to do all we can in the quest to ensure our environment supports a sense of vocation- that we create an environment that invites the best in others out.

We need to understand this work as an ongoing process rather than as an event or intervention.

We need to understand that this isn’t something we do once we have our bottom-line needs met- we do this in order to deliver on our bottom-line.

When we have an army of people who love what they do, the rest is easy. Getting there is less so! However, is it possible? Why of course it is!  And what more, I believe this to be the real work of leadership!

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