Like anyone, I have a lot of important files in my office. Taxes, client information, payroll, and so on. But if the building were burning down, there is only one file I would take with me. A file so important I wouldn’t even think about the rest. It’s not marked “receipts” or “legal” or “finance.” It’s a plain manila folder, and in block letters it says, “Why I Do What I Do.” Next to it is a big red heart that my wife drew.
The contents of that folder have nothing to do with money: A note from the mother of one of our Global Youth Leadership Academy alumni saying how the program changed her daughter’s life. A handwritten letter from a client thanking me for the impact my message has had on his twenty thousand employees. A note from a heart-led leader retreat attendee saying he will never lead or love the same way again. An email from one of my employees thanking me for being there for her during tough times. There are photos of my family. A beautiful letter that my stepson, Anthony, sent me for Father’s Day.
Whenever I have a tough day, or when I’m burnt out from travel, I open that folder. Every single time, I feel better. It reminds me that all my blood, sweat, and tears are worth it, that my long hours and endless flights serve a greater purpose.
I’m fortunate that I love my job, even when it leaves me exhausted. I love helping people become better. I love meeting people who make me better. Not everyone is as fortunate. A global survey by Gallup found that a whopping 85 percent of people are unhappy at their jobs. They feel disengaged. They aren’t connected. They don’t feel their work has purpose. For a long time, that was me, too. I was in software sales, I was a teacher, I ran an international nonprofit before I started my own. And I was dissatisfied with all of them.
The problem wasn’t that I was in the wrong line of work. There are millions of teachers, salespeople, and executives who are making a difference in the world both in their job and outside of it. But I didn’t have a folder labeled “Why I Do What I Do.” I wasn’t keeping track of the people who mattered most. I didn’t stop to consider the parts of my job that were fulfilling, and I let the negative parts consume all my time.
The other day I traveled to Sacramento, California, to speak with thirty-five restaurant general managers at Taco Bell. It’s a great organization filled with exceptional leaders. As I stood in front of them in a conference room, I asked simply, “Why are you here today? Why other than because your CEO told you to?” Many of them had good answers: to learn about heart-led leadership, to better serve their customers, and so on.
“Well, let me tell you why I’m here,” I said. I explained that my fourteen-year-old son, Tate, had just been accepted to attend and play for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, which is the top hockey prep school in the country. It counts among its alumni not just future Hall of Fame hockey players like Sidney Crosby, but U.S. senators, Hollywood actors, and titans of industry. It’s always been Tate’s dream to attend Shattuck, but it means he’ll be living in Minnesota. After that he’s off to college, and then he’ll move somewhere else to start his life.
“There are 172 days until Tate leaves for school. Those are the final 172 days that he will be living with my wife and me on a full-time basis. Last week, I took my daughter, Caroline, to visit colleges in Boston. There are about 880 days until we drop her off at her new school. Every time I go to bed by myself in a hotel room, I see those calendar pages flip in my mind. But today I’m not with Tate and Caroline. I’m with you. I don’t have to be here, but I chose to because I believe in my message, and I believe in you as leaders.”
And then I told those thirty-five restaurant general managers: “In truth, I’m mainly here for the eight hundred folks who work for you. The cashiers, the cooks, the cleaning staff, and all the other people who depend on your leadership. Instead of spending as much time as humanly possible with my kids, I’m trying to help you become heart-led leaders so that you can positively impact eight hundred lives. This is why I do what I do.”
Now let me ask you what I asked those restaurant managers: Why do you do what you do? If you don’t know the answer to that question, perhaps you should start a file and save all the letters of appreciation you receive from your customers, clients, peers, and employees. And when you find yourself disengaged, dissatisfied, or disconnected, you can pull out that plain manila folder and regain your “why” by reading the contents within.