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Three Stonemasons

Stone CathedralThere is an ancient story, unattributed, that I think clearly shows the power of mastery, autonomy and vision. You will recall from Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, that Mastery is the ability to continue to grow in our chosen profession, Autonomy is the freedom to think and do what we need to do as opposed to follow direction, and Purpose or Vision is a clear understanding of the larger view of the organization’s aspirations. Here is how I’ve pieced together the “Three Stonemasons” story (all puns intended).

As he was exploring the area around his new village, the ancient traveler happened upon a quarry. He soon encountered a stonemason hammering away in the hot sun. Curious, he enquired, “My good man, what are you doing?” The mason never looked up. He gruffly explained that he was laboring here under the hot sun, shaping stones for his employer. He further stated, “This is hot, menial work and I have much to do besides answering silly questions from strangers. Please leave me alone.”

So, a bit put off, the traveler continued on his way along the quarry road. Soon he came upon a second stonemason. Still curious, he quietly enquired of this mason what he was doing. The mason put down his chisel and hammer, stood up and wiping his brow, he offered that he was smoothing stones for use in buildings and walls. That this was the way he earned a living for his family. He then further explained, “I love working with stone and would really like to be a sculptor. But that takes years of training and my family could not afford an apprenticeship. So, now I work all day in this heat to earn my living. And I must get back to work now. But thank you for your interest, I wish you well.”

Further along the quarry road, our traveler came upon a third stonemason. Unlike the others, this man was humming happily to himself as he hammered away in the hot sun. Again, our curious traveler enquired as to what the mason was doing. But the man kept concentrating on the stone, humming away at the huge piece, his chisel seeming to follow lines that were invisible to the questioner. After some minutes, he suddenly stopped, jumped up and placing his hands gently on the stone, smiled at the traveler and excitedly exclaimed, “Come, let me show you what I am doing.”

He took our traveler several hundred yards down the road to a construction site. There they looked upon a huge hole in the ground with a jumble of large timbers, stones of all shapes and sizes and an impressive array of men digging, shaping, hammering and calling out to each other. It seemed to be chaos. The traveler looked perplexed as the stonemason said in a breathless, reverend voice, “This . . . this sir is what I am doing.” “But WHAT” asked the confused stranger? “Can’t you see,” asked the incredulous stonemason? He spread his arms wide to take in the whole construction site, and with obvious passion and emotion said, “We are building a beautiful Cathedral for all the people in our village. It will be beautiful to behold and will be a sanctuary for all who go within.”

And so I believe it is with our organizations today. Without vision, our world is sure to be a chaotic jumble of constant change. We will not be able to keep up if our craftsmen do not have a vision of the larger goal—something bigger than the task at hand that is calling them to be and do their best. They will not be engaged if they cannot continue to master their craft, whatever that may be, and have the autonomy to shape their part of the larger whole.