As a minister, my father performed a lot of weddings. When I was a young child, I got to witness some of these weddings, for relatives or friends of the family who were brave enough to include the four Baker children in the invitation and foolish enough to leave us unattended around the shrimp bowl at the reception. When I became an adult, I had the chance to participate in a few of these weddings, for my siblings and some close friends.
As a member of those wedding parties, I was obliged to attend the rehearsal the night before the big event. Before taking everyone through the choreography of the ceremony and making the bride and bridesmaids practice walking down the aisle (“Slower. Slower! SLOWER!”), my father would take a moment to talk to the group of us. He covered several topics in those opening remarks; but one of the most memorable of them was when he explained what the wedding ceremony was all about, opening our eyes to what was really happening during it.
The depth of vows and sharing
In particular, he would talk about the importance of the bride and groom taking their vows in front of witnesses. There is a legal aspect to this practice, of course (i.e. all marriages have to have at least one witness). But beyond that, my father said that taking vows in the company of others has a way of amplifying the depth of those vows. In the simplest and most important sense, the bride and groom are making promises to each other; but in another sense, they are making promises to us to keep the promises they have just made to each other. If in the future the bride or groom breaks those vows, they are most certainly letting down their spouse; but they are also letting down the rest of us because, in bearing witness to those promises as they were made, we in some way became part of them. In other words, they have an obligation to each other, but also to the rest of us; and that added sense of obligation, my father explained, can sometimes be the kick in the pants a couple needs to work through the rough patches that most marriages inevitably hit.
I was thinking of this the other day when I was talking with a CEO and her executive team about their hesitation to share their strategic commitments, objectives and plans with the rest of the company. I strongly encouraged them to do so for a couple of reasons. In the more practical sense, if the realization of those strategic commitments in any way requires the effort of employees (which is almost always the case), then those employees need to be completely engaged and aligned around those commitments. In a less practical but equally important sense, in sharing those strategic commitments with their workforce, the leaders of that company make public their promise to keep them, doing so in front of hundreds of witnesses. This significantly deepens executives’ sense of obligation to those commitments and feelings of responsibility to keep them: strong binds that can keep them on track when they run up against key challenges or unanticipated forces that could blow them off course.
Until death do us part
Adding another layer to all this promise and commitment “stuff,” my father would always ask the congregation to pledge to the couple, out loud, that they would do whatever they could to help them uphold their vows to each other. I always thought this was a nice touch; and whether I was a member of the wedding party or just someone in attendance, it made me feel connected to the couple and strengthened my desire to see their commitment succeed. Imagine if that feeling of connection could happen at the workplace, between employees and executives and between everyone and the strategic commitments, the promises those executives have just made in public. That would be a pretty powerful force to keep everyone engaged and aligned when obstacles got in the way, wouldn’t it? Everybody focused, motivated and moving collectively forward…until death do us part.