in the business of spiritless specialists


“When leaders and organizations develop skills without cultivating energy, the result is organizations (and schools) filled with spiritless specialists.”

Zach Mercurio


Bastian Lehman, the CEO of Postmates:

No competitive advantage should come at the expense of workers.


Leda Glyptis wrote this in one of her pieces: It took me a long time to admit to myself that hard work delivering results is not the same as work that has an impact.”

Early in your career you are demanded (pressured) to show you can get things done. Results is the key to unlocking pay, respect, promotion and even some independence (getting your boss of your back). I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that early in your career getting things is mostly tied to some specialist role (although if you pay attention you learn that getting things done well incorporates a lot of generalist, and relational, aspects).

That said.

I was slightly different than Leda in that I always sensed impact was more important than simply generating results. It made my career tricky, or, as one co-worker said to me later in Life “you always liked to do it your way.” The difficulty in focusing on impact is that most people want to focus on process with regard to creating impact. To be clear that process does not have to always be efficiency. Business, if you generate results, can be quite accommodating to an effectiveness ideology. Regardless. Business, in focusing on results, tends to encourage spiritless engagement. Now. They would never tell you that. They speak of culture, passion, caring about your work, etc. ad nausea in fact. But. Deliver results and business can overlook a lot of shit. The problem is, well, inevitably you cannot overlook that shit. If you are really honest with yourself a career of results can feel a bit hollow. It will feel a bit like you missed something. You may not know exactly what you missed but if nudged a bit you’ll most likely speak of some missing engagement aspect.

Simple doing only contains, and retains, a certain amount of value. And when you assess that value, while it does have value, it doesn’t quite measure up to the highest value you may see when you look around. And, well, for a results person, this may feel like assessing your results and finding them wanting a bit.

** note: on specialists and specialism. To be clear, I am not anti-specialist. In fact, specializing can be quite rewarding. In fact, being a spirited specialist can be incredibly rewarding. I would argue to be a spirited specialist one would be a craftsperson with their skill. I believe it is Jackson & Jackson, “How to Speak Human”, who pointed out the shift from craftsmanship to professionalism (where we went from being a profession, and having a profession, to creating an industry of professionalism. This distinction is most likely the difference between spirited specialist and spiritless specialist. I am a self-proclaimed generalist, loving knowing some about many things, and yet I can be quite envious of the specialist who sees their specific skill as a craft and wield it as a craft. Ponder.

Now. It would be silly to not admit that the internet, or technology, hasn’t played a role in this.

All the internet has done is tightened the gap between mediocre professional experience and talented young learner.


In addition, it has blurred the value in true professional experience <what to do with what you actually learn> and learning.


In addition, the internet <and our generation in its insane focus on simplifying everything> have blurred the contrast between what is truly complex and what is truly simple.


In addition, the internet, in combination with an insanely stupid focus on short term results defining a decision/choice, has created an impression speed has more value than, well, anything else. In other words what experience truly brings, ‘slow down a little to speed up’ skill, is more challenged than ever before.

All the digital age has done is commoditize experience perception-wise and it is up to someone with experience to decommoditisize it in reality. It is was true yesterday, true today and will be true tomorrow. Not everyone can do any job and a complex job can never be simplified.

All of this leads me to the fact Zach Mercurio, author of The Invisible Leader and the best speaker on Purpose I know, talks about impact all the time. Sometimes people miss that as they navigate their own visceral response, and biases/opinions/attitudes, as he speaks about Purpose.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while. How do so many extremely talented people become so miserable in organizations?”

Zach Mercurio

Impact, from a personal perspective, once you get your head wrapped around something other than results, is fairly easy.

Impact, from a business perspective, is trickier – but rather simple and easy.

When I was doing strategy work for businesses I kind of became known for my ‘better’ strategies and questions.

How does this make a person better?

How does this make a life better?

How does this make the society better?

How does this make things better for a person in making the world better?

While, yes, products and services are inevitably problem solvers and people buy products & services to solve problems, that simplistic value equation/assessments provides the opportunity for that product and service to:

  • Absolve itself for any accountability beyond simply solving that problem
  • Miss the opportunity value of not being spiritless (while I do not believe Purpose adds value I do believe when embedded there is a halo effect of intangible value)

‘Better’ forces a business to ask some hard questions.

Now. While Zach and I would most likely have a healthy debate on how tightly I attach value to impact, in my view, a business has to. This, in my opinion, is not to the detriment of individual assessment of impact (in fact I think it can often create a healthy layer). Better is an easy thing to grasp. Yeah. Maybe too easy in its ability to morph into some possibly not-really-that-better things but, in general, it provides a compass toward good, not bad.

Business, being business, has always wanted to quantify ‘better’ inevitably seeking to shift it into the results category.

** note: this is why I almost always balk at empathy, authenticity, mindfulness in business because I believe they are embedded and not objectives, but business will always seek to quantify (assess results)

If you decide impact is more important than results, you are in for a rocky road. If you don’t believe me, just watch Alain de Botton’s Tedtalk “Gentler philosophy of Success.”  Impact is intrinsically more satisfying, yet, society (and business) inherently embraces extrinsic results. If you generate the results, society rewards you, yet, it still sometimes feels like a hollowish satisfaction – that there must be something more or, well, better.


If I am honest, I am sure I played the role of a spiritless specialist at some points in my career. It was probably uncomfortable, but I did it. It’s quite possible I was within the generation navigating the change from “industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education,  mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, combine[d] with standardization, centralization, concentration, and synchronization and organizational bureaucracy” ( Toffler) to, well, a shift to the opposite and this puts certain demands on people to ‘do’ to bridge from an old way of doing things to a new way of doing things.

If I am honest, part of my career impact has been navigating this shift.

** Note: I am willing to place navigating this shift in the ‘impact’ category because I believe this was a positive shift for business, people and society, albeit, it’s a work in progress.

If I am honest, analyzing oneself on impact is hard. Its hard because we are hardwired, with some real reasons, to results. Therefore, some days, even if you write down how you made an impact each day, you will find yourself holding pencil above the paper not really sure what to write. Some days you will find no real victory, just the attempt.

And this is where results, impact, purpose and mattering all come crashing together. Results, impact, purpose and mattering are not typically short-term actions. What I mean by that is you do something, or somethings, ‘feel’ like you may have made some positive impact, but not see any direct correlation (ever) or correlation is ambiguous or correlation is days, months, years away. In the end impact is simply feeling like you have done something to make something, or someone, better in some way (but results can provide a short-term dopamine hit).

And maybe that is also where I land on Purpose (with a capital P). I believe Purpose is an outcome, not an objective. But I also recognize people like objectives. Maybe if everyone would center some Purpose objective on something simple like ‘better’ – better today than I was yesterday and ‘somehow making things better for someone’ – I believe you will attain the objective of Progress. And I would argue that if you attain Progress, I am fairly sure you will have positive impact which, in my pea like brain, should fulfill some Purpose.

In the end.

Results and impact. Parents, school, society, even peers, will bludgeon you with results judgment. From an early age we are taught this is how to not only assess yourself but assess yourself versus others. I am not going to suggest that, in a whole cloth way, this is wrong because at some point you do need to assess some truths with regard to your skills or even your own behavior. But we need to get a grip on how we view results. We need to understand that results are often a means to an end – the end being impact. Maybe we should ponder Viktor Frankl from Mans Search for Meaning:

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Results have consequences not just to ourselves, but to others. And maybe that is where I will end. I think we all know this; it just takes some awareness to become truly aware of it. We all know the world is bigger than “I”; it just takes some choice to do something about it.

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Written by Bruce