JFK and the NASA janitor
John F Kennedy made a number of visits to NASA when he was the US president. On one of the tours, Kennedy noticed a janitor cleaning his mop. Kennedy walked over to the janitor and asked, ‘So what do you do around here?’ The janitor looked at Kennedy and said proudly, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon’.
This story is a fantastic example of an employee seeing the purpose that their daily tasks serve. However, it’s been told many times and used by many business leaders.
The bricklayers and the cathedral
On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago, a traveller happened upon a large group of workers next to the River Avon. Despite being late for an important rendezvous, curiosity convinced the traveller that he should ask about the men’s work. He walked up to the first of the three tradesmen and said, ‘My dear fellow, what is it that you are doing?’ As the man continued his work, he grumbled, ‘I am cutting stones’. Realising that the mason didn’t wish to engage in a conversation, the traveller moved towards the second of the three men and repeated his question. To the traveller’s delight, this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and said that he was a stonecutter. He then added, ‘I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn 10 quid I will return home’. The traveller thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home, and approached the third man of the trio.
This time when the traveller asked his question, the worker paused and made eye contact with him, then looked to the sky, drawing the traveller’s eyes upwards. The third mason replied, ‘I am a mason and I am building a cathedral’. He continued, ‘I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the bishop told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told me that the cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work’. He paused, then said, ‘So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be’.
This is another great story about believing that your work has a higher purpose.