the parable of the bricklayer and the Cathedral

(En route to Chicago for an #OFA event) Two people are working side by side, laying bricks at a similar speed. When asked what they are doing, the first says, “Laying bricks,” and the second says, “Building a cathedral.”*

In civic or political organizations and campaigns, we need the activists to feel that they are building cathedrals. Then they will be motivated to go beyond their assigned quotas, they will contribute their ideas to improve the whole structure, they will bring other people into the team, they will hold their fellow workers accountable, and they will go on to start new cathedrals when the current one is finished. On the other hand, if they are just laying bricks, the best we can hope is that they will do what they are asked.

Also, in any political context, we are not working with inanimate objects, like bricks. Rather, people are working with people, which takes enthusiasm, listening, and tact. So the subjective attitude of the worker is even more important in the political domain than on a construction site, although it matters there as well.

In order to get their workers or volunteers to build cathedrals instead of laying bricks, some organizations try to tell them about the overall goal in inspiring ways. They use exalted language and charismatic leaders. That approach will not work if the workers really are laying bricks—just implementing the instructions they have been given. They will only feel that they are building a cathedral if they are building a cathedral.

That means that volunteers and paid employees must (on the one hand) be treated as serious and important workers and held accountable for results: attractive and strong walls. They should not be patronized by being praised for just showing up and trying; results matter. But (on the other hand) they must be given opportunities for creativity and innovation. If they can figure out a better way to lay bricks, or a better brick, or a better wall, or a better cathedral, they should be encouraged to try it.

That recipe—measurement and accountability for outcomes along with scope for creativity and agency—is what Wellesley College professor Hahrie Han, my fellow speaker tonight in Chicago, finds essential for developing leaders and building strong and effective organizations.

*Google tells me that I took this story (like much else) from Harry Boyte.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.