Saving Private Ryan…How do Leaders Make Meaning?

Leaders make things matter when they enable relatedness and show that they care.

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Retired US Army General and leadership consultant Martin Dempsey has written a short but poignant article, titled “Leadership Principle #2: Make It Matter,” about a leader’s role in making meaning for those they lead.


General Dempsey discusses a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan, in which the team leader Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, tells Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon, to “Earn this”…his words connect Private Ryan to the sacrifices of those sent to save him. Captain Miller is giving him the charge to courageously fight, in order to give meaning to the lives sacrificed by those sent to rescue him.  The edited scene can be viewed below.

Scientific research shows a strong connection between meaningful work, motivation, and positive outcomes. People who see the deeper meaning of their work will count their work as more than just a job or a career…they will see it as a calling, and be much more productive.

Meaning often comes from relationships–it is significant that the words of inspiration to Private Ryan implicitly refer to the bond that he has with his rescuers and fellow soldiers. Leadership author Simon Sinek, asking numerous soldiers who made sacrificial acts why they were willing to do so, found that they all essentially said, “Because they would have done it for me.” In her book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, author Susan Fowler highlights the psychological need of relatedness as critical to motivation. “Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.”[1]

As General Dempsey points out in his article, it is a primary responsibility of leaders to help their followers find meaning in work. How do we help people find meaning? One of the most effective ways is by building a safe work environment where relationships and connections can flourish–making everyone feel a part of the team. Building a safe environment might mean discouraging negative office gossip. It might mean straightforward communication about expectations, without ulterior motives or hidden agendas. It might mean showing compassion and concern for workers in their personal lives. Leaders make things matter when they enable relatedness and show that they care.

Leaders inspire their comrades to find meaning through relationship.  Source:

[1] Susan Fowler, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2014, p. 37.


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