Commitment involves rising above our own needs and perspectives to grab hold of a greater good. As psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck reminds us:
“People are searching for a deeper meaning in their lives.”
The leader who understands this and who responsibly presents a great cause to followers will turn a key in many hearts and unlock vast reservoirs of creativity and productivity.
Standing for something greater relates directly to the values and vision of an organization. A leader’s stance for something greater not only meets his or her personal desires, but it strongly resonates with peers, direct-reports, and others who have a stake in the organization.
History presents many examples of great men and women who understood the need to lift up allegiance to something great. These people stood their ground and had the controlled strength to remain focused on the ultimate objective.
Susan B. Anthony was such a person.
She found her “something-greater” cause, a passionate pursuit that would claim most of her attention and energy for the rest of her life. She worked tirelessly to keep the issue of suffrage before the public by speaking, petitioning Congress and state legislatures, and publishing newspapers.
In 1872 she put feet to her convictions by defying the existing laws and casting a vote in the presidential election. What a scene at shortly after 7 A.M. on Election Day when Susan and several other women marched to their polling place.
The three young men supervising registration initially refused to let Susan and the others register, and a heated argument ensued. After an hour of debate, a frustrated Susan finally got the inspectors to relent when she told them, “If you refuse us our rights as citizens, I will bring charges against you in Criminal Court and I will sue each of you personally for large, exemplary damages!” This threat turned the tide, and the women were grudgingly allowed to register.
On election day Susan was allowed to fill out the paper ballot and cast her vote for presidential candidate U.S. Grant. But that was not the end of the matter. Later Susan was arrested and charged for casting an illegal vote. Hoping to gain more public attention for the suffrage cause, she refused to post bail (her lawyer paid it out of his own pocket).
At her trial the arguments were long and passionate on both sides. After the prosecution and defense were heard, in a surprising turn of events, the judge told the jury it must return a guilty verdict.
Susan and her supporters were outraged and claimed the trial was a farce.
Later, after reviewing the case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided women still could not vote. Unwilling to abandon her great cause, Susan fought on faithfully until her death in 1906. It wasn’t until 1920, with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that women were finally given the right to vote in the United States.
The self-sacrifice of women like Susan B. Anthony and their vision for something greater than themselves led to significant cultural changes in the United States. Today, many take it for granted that women can attend college, work in any chosen profession, and have access to every right available to men. This was not the case in 1872.
People in organizations can be caught in a similar trap. They don’t see anything past Friday’s paycheck. The organization offers them little vision, few or inconsistent values, and little or no opportunity to achieve. Granted, not every situation embodies a culture-altering, transcendent cause like woman’s suffrage. But trusted leaders know how important a higher goal is for individual and organizational well-being.
They always point the way to something greater.