If you measure happiness, what are you measuring?

Happiness and engagement go hand in hand for employees. An influential business book, “The Happiness Advantage,” has suggested that for over a decade now.

Last week we talked about surveys to measure happiness and how dialogue gets to the heart of things more effectively. Talk with your people.

But just what is happiness? What is engagement? Enter this article: “In Search of Happiness, Part 1: The Road of Virtue.” The author points out that “The Happiness Advantage” definition of happiness sounds an awful lot like Aristotle’s.

It’s worth a read. And … we have to talk about one of those Greek words again: arete.

Here’s my take in a draft excerpt of my upcoming book, “The Lost Tools of Business,” discussing the word’s powerful application to the workplace.

Excellence

Tinker was a dwarf miniature pony. Yes, both dwarf and miniature. There are dogs out there bigger than she was. 

She was small but mighty. Tinker had the ability to make kids smile: She was a therapy animal. My wife’s aunt is a master trainer. She worked with Tinker to be good with children.

Then she took Tinker to the children’s hospital, where she brightened the day of everyone who looked at her.  

Tinker had a sixth sense. She knew just which patient needed her to sidle up. She would put her head over on the kid’s lap, or touch their side, and make a connection. She was, truly, excellent at what she was called to do. 

The Greek word for excellence is arete (AIR-uh-tay). It is linked to paideia—intentional culture—in profound ways. 

Classical scholar Werner Jaeger observes that the earliest uses of the word “paideia” in ancient texts refer just to child-rearing, not the intentional culture-building discussed in this book. But arete, excellence, shows up in texts centuries before.

Jaeger says arete’s “oldest meaning is a combination of proud and courtly morality with warlike valor.” Strength. Prowess. Manliness, the way Achilles, the mighty warrior of Homer’s early Western epic, the Illiad, would have understood it.

In fact, you weren’t a leader unless you possessed arete: “to strive always for the highest areté, and to excel all others,” Homer tells us, is the goal of true leaders. 

As time went on, the Greeks acknowledged other ways to possess excellence. Odysseus, in the Iliad’s sequel, the Odyssey, is described as excellent in his craftiness. For instance, he masterminds the escape from the sealed cave of a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant. 

He starts by telling the Cyclops that his name is Nobody. He and his shipmates then get the giant drunk and gouge out his eye with a sharpened log. As he screams for other Cyclops to help, they stand at the door, asking who hurt him. “Nobody, friends,” they hear—so they shrug their shoulders and leave. 

Meanwhile, Odysseus ties together the giant’s sheep so that his men can hang underneath, hidden from the hand of the giant as he checks the livestock he lets out to graze.  

Later in the story the goddess Athena visits him in disguise. He lies to her about his identity, attempting to be cautious. But as goddess of wisdom, Athena sees through the ruse. She smiles, stroking his hand: 

… Come, enough of this now. We’re both old hands

at the arts of intrigue. Here among mortal men

you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns,

and I am famous among the gods for wisdom, 

cunning wiles, too. …

Even the gods agree: What made Odysseus special was his cunning and craftiness. That was his arete, his excellence. 

The Romans, idolizing the Greeks, latched on to this idea of excellence. From their Latin word for arete we get words like “virile” and “virtue.” 

And that is how the word arete shows up in the Bible, too: virtue. 

Jaeger concludes that “the idea of areté is the quintessence of early Greek aristocratic education.” Without a striving for excellence, culture-building (paideia) would fall short.

I am not the first person to see a weed-filled garden and think about excellence and culture: Plato says that men are to act “as a farmer tends to his crops—by nurturing and cultivating its tame aspects, and by stopping the wild ones growing.”

And even in those early versions of the word “arete” in the Illiad, it is clear that everything has a potential to which it must live up. In describing the arete of horses, for instance, the epic mentions their speed. 

Which brings us back to Tinker.

True fulfillment

Tinker was never going to win the Kentucky Derby. And she didn’t have the ability to pull a wagon or coach. 

But with good care and training, she did what she was made to do—with excellence. She lived up to her potential. 

Greek cities were just like my wife’s aunt, training Tinker: Paideia was an intentional method for culture building, forming citizens into truly liberated individuals who fulfilled their potentials, their arete. 

What if, instead of just managing change, just increasing sales or productivity or efficiency, you and your team became all that you could be? 

What if, instead of just becoming more effective, you became more fulfilled in your calling? 

To paraphrase Gordon MacDonald, instead of feeling driven … you can think through your life enough to feel called. You know what you are about and are intentionally shaping you and your team to achieve that excellence.

How do you do that? Classical education’s method involves the liberal arts. 

“Liberal” didn’t mean left-wing. It comes from the same root as “liberated.” Slaves were not offered this kind of education. 

True education as described was to ensure that NOTHING could make you a slave: not clever-sounding arguments, not manipulative leaders, not deceitful “town cryers” among the staff, not poor thinking, not even your own passions. 

I’ve often heard colleagues wiser than me complain that a company that focuses on a “culture initiative” usually isn’t successful at changing culture. It’s cosmetics when what’s needed is surgery.

Likewise, I’ve seen organizations fail at culture change when they tap one department to implement it. HR become the culture police, for instance.

A wiser way forward is for leaders to pause and look in the mirror. The influential text on classical education mentioned before, “Norms and Nobility,” points out that knowledge obligates one to do something with that knowledge. Insight on the inside leads to action on the outside. Knowing leads to doing. 

A retreat 

Earlier in this book I mentioned a client’s employee who swore in a staff meeting about a process change and stormed out in angry tears:

At a weekend retreat with the client, he had worked out his arete. On flip chart paper in large letters, he had stated his desire to be “a humble servant leader through seeking and proclaiming truth.” 

He also decided he and his company would focus on “identifying needs, overcoming barriers and fulfilling dreams.” 

He prayed with his wife about what to do with this cussing, crying client who had made a public scene.

And he realized he had already spelled it out: He must proclaim truth to the upset employee in a way that served her. And he must invite her to identify the need within her that made overcoming the barrier of this new taking on the new process so difficult. 

He emailed the employee: “You are valued to us well beyond the old processes we are moving away from. I still want you on the team. Your offense was fireable. But please apologize and meet me at 3.” 

That meeting led to further tears. And revelations: 

“The employee ended up admitting that a lot of this was about insecurities she had from long ago,” my client said. 

Then there was reconciliation, and the tears turned to laughter. 

“Years ago, this kind of thing would have caused me to blow up or avoid the situation,” he told me. But there was no need now. 

He was able to be intentional about what his organization would be excellent about. 

When you are clear on where you want to excel, those excellencies you want to cultivate, a lot of things get easier: where to spend your time, how to make decisions. 

But it will take time. More on that in the next chapter. But first, let’s define those “excellencies.”