Three Stops On The Search For Meaning

I wish Viktor Frankl had been my uncle or even next-door neighbor.

Such a gentle and kind spirit, accomplished, yet humble, very connected to his internal being, yet realistic in his self-appraisals, and with the ability to see how we are and to hold the mirror of words up for us to see ourselves.

Yep, I'm in the Frankl Fanatics Fan group, as are many others who I respect and admire. 

The presence of his small, short, and old memoir with explanation on so many book lists with titles like Important Books, Books That Changed My Life, and Books You Have To Read decades after the events depicted and its original publication, apparently the man and his work have staying power.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
~ Viktor Frankl

Man's Search For Meaning is Frankl's best-known work, the one placed on those lists I just mentioned. Written and published just after the end of World War II in 1946, the paperback version, even with a foreword by Harold S. Kushner, runs only to 165 pages. I first encountered Frankl and his work in graduate school while learning how to counsel others for change, and I have been a fan ever since

As I remarked in another post many years ago about this book, you can read it easily in one rainy afternoon and still have time for tea. Understanding and using the wisdom in these few pages will take the rest of your life. I will admit the shortness of this book was an immediate draw for this and other over-worked and time-deprived graduate students. However, it had a sticking power beyond its length and size.

Ever wonder why this small book about a psychotherapy model is so popular with leaders, managers, and others who deal with normal people, rather than with those who suffer psychologically?

These days, we assume that Frankl's work is important and useful, but we tend to jump to the quotes (and Frankl is very quotable) without addressing the larger question of why his work is so much still with us, as the world in which his thoughts and ideas came into being has faded into dimly remembered history.

Here are my three reasons why I think Frankl's work is so darn important, along with some observations for leaders at the end:

Frankl Speaks To Both Our Hearts & Our Minds

Using the current lingo, he used neuroscience to engage both our cognitive and our emotional motivations. Frankl understood the value of a gripping story and his chronicle of his experiences during World War II as a concentration camp prisoner are both starkly matter-of-fact and terrifying at the same time. Rather than a chronological or historical account, this is a free-flowing collection of observations about his and others' experiences during a terrible time in their lives.

The book starts with Frankl's prison camp experiences and is full of terrible and fascinating observations about that experience from his perspective. One quick example is the large role played by Capos who were also prisoners, but were chosen by the German guards to supervise other prisoners and who held great power in that particular environment. Frankl also talks about prisoners who chose to share what little food they had with others … to be human, even in the most inhumane of situations.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This is not a story about the brutality of the Nazis, although that is present throughout the first part of the book. This is about man's ability to be inhuman toward his fellow man in the right situations. Frankl hit on this theme long before Philip Zimbardo divided his test subjects into guards and prisoners and discovered how easily we fall into our roles.

The second part of the book will delight those who study the human condition and seek to understand why we do what we do. Frankl's model, if one can call it that, is titled Logotherapy. Logos is meaning in Greek and the search for meaning in one's life is at the core. For those who need the academic descriptions and explanations, you will come away with a solid understanding of how Frankl constructed his ideas and his psychotherapeutic model.

Frankl Understood The Value Of Reality

Frankl was not one to sugar-coat the realities of life. His description of the brutal and consistent rigors of life as a prisoner and the very real compromises that occur is not the normal stuff of Hollywood films, but it ought to be. We like clear heroes and despicable villains, dealing with resolvable issues and surmountable problems, rather than the gritty and often uncomfortable ground which Frankl tills.

An unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one's own sake or for that of a good friend.

Frankl goes deeper by simply showing us how complex real life can be, especially in times of deprivation. We would rather talk about the triumphant liberation of the prisoners from tyranny than consider the grinding and routine horrors of years spent living barely, while watching others die for lack of compassion on the part of others, but also witnessing great acts of heroism and kindness in the same places.

Frankl Makes Us Believe We Can Be Better People

Ultimately, Frankl is a motivational speaker in the best sense, rather than the commercial sense. He talks about our ability to choose, even in the worst of situations. This is probably one of the most difficult things to truly understand about our human emotions and behaviors - we can choose, although we often choose not to do so, blaming fate, events, and other people for how we experience them.

No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.

Frankl talks often about the role of hope as an essential element of survival. He also talks about the realities of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, long before that term became known and used. That someone who has suffered so much at the hands of some of his fellow men is not filled with thoughts of vengeance and hatred says worlds about his inner strength.

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.

Here is a clip from Frankl talking to a group in 1972, which clearly shows his gentle humor and deep love for his fellow man and for humanity, as well as his ability to hold the interest of college students, which is no small feat. Enjoy the accent: Viktor Frankl Talks To Youth In Search of Meaning.

So, what has all this to do with leadership, one asks? We are always talking about being leaders who make a difference. Viktor Frankl was one who actually did. I see true leadership at the personal, group, and organizational level as including the ability to understand our fellow man and ourselves at the level where we learn what being human truly involves, and to share that knowledge with others to help them learn, achieve, and grow.

Your leadership journey probably does not include being a therapist. However, your leadership journey had better include some serious work at self-knowledge, both for your personal benefit and to better understand those who you serve as a leader.

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Our self-knowledge leads us to clear articulations in both words and deeds of those values we hold most dear. This requires us to learn and grow as individuals and as leaders.

I cannot think of a better place to start or restart, than by spending a rainy (or snowy, for those in the Eastern US) afternoon with this gentle and wise man.

Note: All quotations are from Viktor E. Frankl's work Man's Search For Meaning.

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