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Core Competency for the 21st Century

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elaine Dundon and Alex Pattakos
October 15, 2020

We are facing a crisis of meaning. This year has been unprecedented on many levels—social, financial, political and existential. With an increasing focus and reliance on government action, public administrators have been forced to re-evaluate how they deliver the best possible services as they cope with the loss of normal operating structures and work relationships. These challenging times call for new approaches, and new approaches call for new competencies. A new core competency based on Meaning should come first as the public administration sector adjusts to the “new normal.”


Meaning goes beyond the common topic of purpose. Purpose is defined as an intended end or desired result, aim or goal. Meaning, on the other hand, is defined as something that is significant or that matters to a person. Meaning can be viewed on a deeper, more intrinsic level than purpose, for it refers to something that resonates with a person in a much more profound way than simply an aim or a goal.

In our work, we have met many leaders who are focused on achieving their team’s purpose by focusing on tasks that need to be done, projects that need to be managed and budgets that need to be considered. We are not asking leaders to ignore any of these organizational requirements. What we are asking leaders to consider is to put meaning first—to explore and discuss the intrinsic motivations employees have that can lead to higher levels of satisfaction, customer service, innovation and performance. Importantly, employees must also take personal responsibility for understanding how and where they find meaning in their work, in order to motivate themselves to higher levels of engagement, resilience, performance and fulfillment.

Meaning is an essential core competency for the 21st century. We cannot predict how life and work will unfold in the next decade or so—as evidenced by the unpredictable changes we have faced in just the last 6 months. Yes, we know that digital skills will become more relevant in the future, but as far as specific skill requirements are concerned, these can and will change. What won’t change is the need for all of us to seek meaning in our lives and work, and to be more connected to and understanding of ourselves and others.

MEANINGology Mindset

Our mindsets serve to define who we are today and who we will become in the future. We must recognize that our mindsets (beliefs, opinions, feelings and thoughts) affect many aspects of our personal and work lives, including how we interact with others.

Some people choose nihilistic mindsets characterized by feelings of meaninglessness where nothing in life, work or society holds any meaning. Once people are caught in a cycle of nihilistic thoughts, they might experience confirmation bias, the tendency to only embrace information that reinforces their nihilistic viewpoints.

We believe that life is an ongoing search for meaning, not a submission to nihilism. As we begin to identify why our work matters to us, we start to identify situations, events and people that represent sources of meaning for us. While we can feel some anxiety about certain aspects of our work, overall we feel that our work has meaning; hence, it is important to us and, ideally, it is important to others.

We have designed a new paradigm called MEANINGology, which incorporates our research and experience in the fields of innovation management, leadership development and personal growth. Working with clients in different industry sectors (e.g., education, government, business, nonprofits) in various cultures around the world has given us a broad view of how widespread the crisis of meaning is. In order to address this crisis, we have developed a new discipline and practice to help people identify how they can discover meaning to become more fully engaged, resilient, energetic, creative and productive.

To understand what is truly meaningful to us, a change in mindset must first occur. Our mindsets become the foundation or platform for achieving our various personal and collective aims and, at the same time, determine the next steps and direction our life and work will take. Our mindsets, for instance, will dictate how willing we are to adopt new policies and programs designed to improve government services.


In our bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, we share a relevant passage:

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

These three lines underscore that we always have the choice to decide how to respond to whatever happens to us. We need to become more conscious of whether we are actively reflecting on a situation or simply reacting on autopilot. We need to recognize what we can control and what we cannot. We need to know that we can deal with whatever comes our way and not let excessive fear get in the way.

To be sure, these are challenging times. But we can choose to adopt new competencies—especially meaning, which is a necessary core competency for the 21st century!

Authors: Elaine Dundon and Alex Pattakos are the founders of a think tank, Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). They are coauthors of two international bestselling, award-winning books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. Dundon, a subject matter expert for Psychology Today, is also author of The Seeds of Innovation (HarperCollins Leadership). Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is currently writing a new book, Public Administration and the Search for Meaning: Rediscovering the Soul of Government, a title in the Routledge ASPA Series in Public Administration and Public Policy. Dundon and Pattakos may be contacted at [email protected]

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