Developing a Worldview
The art of shared meaning-making
If you want to be a great leader, you need to develop a worldview. You might think you don't have one—but you probably do. It's just implicit rather than explicitly articulated.
A worldview is a belief system that answers big, philosophical questions about life and existence. It's what guides our choices and how we orient ourselves in life.
Understanding how to articulate and share your worldview with others can be a powerful tool for creating meaning in an organization.
This came to light for me after I exited a travel company I’d started in the mid 2010s and spent a year studying theology and the psychology of religion.
When running the company, I hadn’t thought much about the deeper meaning behind our trips. But after learning about the study of worldviews, I realized that there were a number of core beliefs implicit in the experiences we offered:
- We believed in prioritizing life experiences over accumulating possessions.
- We believed in learning about oneself and human nature by coming into contact with people from other backgrounds and cultures.
- We believed in the importance of approaching work and projects from a place of intrinsic motivation.
- We believed that one should avoid the “deferred life plan”—that life is short, and one shouldn’t put off for the future what one really wants to do in life.
We never explicitly stated these things, but we could have—and doing so probably would have offered a greater sense of meaning to our participants, and given us a compass and greater sense of purpose as we built out the business.
Much like the bird at the front of the “V” makes flying easier for the rest of the flock, leaders who intentionally articulate and share meaning make it easier for everyone else in an organization to find meaning for themselves.
If leaders fail to do this work, members will either project their own meanings onto the organization or will fail to mark it as meaningful altogether. As an organization grows and new members no longer get facetime with the founder, this problem only gets worse.
In this piece, I’ll explore the basics of worldviews and ways to apply them in organizations. By the end, you'll have a better understanding of how to become a great leader by intentionally sharing meaning with others.
(Credit: Noire Photography / Unsplash)
“Worldview” as an idea was originally theorized by Immanuel Kant as a super-category that could include both religion and non-religious ways of viewing the world. The concept has been further developed in the past few decades by religious studies scholar Ann Taves and several others, defining worldviews by the Big Questions that they answer.
These questions relate to six core domains within philosophy: ontology, cosmology, epistemology, axiology, praxeology, and eschatology*. They can be used to analyze many belief systems, from Christianity to Marxism, and can also be used to help articulate the core beliefs implicit in an organization.
Let’s look at each of these domains and the questions they explore:
- Ontology—what exists? (Gods, the natural world)
- Cosmology—how did we get here? (origin stories, secular history)
- Epistemology—how do we know what is true? (science, sacred texts)
- Axiology—what is the good worth striving for? (values, morals)
- Praxeology—how should we act to reach our goals? (practices, behaviors)
- Eschatology—how do we understand death and our own mortality? (afterlife, “YOLO”)
While religions offer explicit answers to these questions, we have implicit answers to these questions, revealed through our choices and behavior. When a worldview is implicit rather than explicit, researchers call it a “way of life.”
For example, if someone's goal is to become a scientist, their ontology may include a belief in the natural world, their cosmology may be based on the principles of evolution, and their epistemology may prioritize the scientific method for determining truth.
As a leader, it can be helpful to explicitly articulate your worldview and understand the implicit beliefs of those you are trying to lead, so you can connect with your team on a deeper level and create a shared understanding of the world around you.
Of course, it's important to remember that everyone's beliefs are unique, and there is no one "right" answer to the Big Questions. The goal of understanding worldviews is not to impose your own beliefs on others, but to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates and drives people, and to use that knowledge to connect and collaborate more effectively through shared meaning-making.
Let’s look at how to think about articulating answers to each of the Big Questions as a leader along with some concrete examples:
Ontology—what is more real for us than others?
We all live our lives in ways that privilege some aspects of existence over others. Thinking about ontology as an organization means reflecting on what does and doesn’t exist in your slice of the world.
For example, given that many Americans never leave the country, my choice to start a travel company can be thought of as an ontological statement: the rest of the world exists.
We could have intentionally leaned into this as part of our company story, contrasting the day-to-day existence of someone in New York or San Francisco with that of the traveler. The message: a person’s world literally expands through meeting new people and having new cultural experiences.
To reflect on your organization’s ontology, ask yourself:
- What do we believe exists that others ignore?
- What is more real for us than others?
Cosmology—how do we connect to history?
People find meaning in connecting their lives to something larger than themselves. One way to do this as an organization is to intentionally tie your work to historical trends that transcend your current context.
When looking back at my time at the travel company, I wished we had tied our trips directly to the concept of “pilgrimage”—how people across history have left home seeking something in faraway places., which could have helped our participants put their lives in a broader human context.
You can also think of cosmology as the founding story of an organization. Part of communicating meaning in an organization is sharing what inspired its creation, and how that thread carries through into the organization’s mission in the present day.
To reflect on your organization’s cosmology, ask yourself:
- What broader human trends are we a part of?
- What historical precedent is connected to what we’re doing?
- What led to our company’s founding moment?
- How does that show up in our work today?
Epistemology—how do we know what is true?
People often have conflicting ideas about what’s important and the direction an organization should go. To navigate these differences and make decisions, organizations need a shared understanding of how knowledge is acquired and evaluated.
An organization might prioritize evidence-based decision making, using data and analysis to inform their choices. Alternatively, an organization might place more emphasis on experiential knowledge, valuing the wisdom and vision of its leaders.
At the travel company, we were probably too data-focused. In key decisions, we focused primarily on customer feedback and short-term financial viability, and didn’t develop a robust long-term vision. We were always being reactive, and eventually the business we built was one I no longer wanted to run.
I also see founders who bias the other way, lending too much epistemological weight to the founder’s grand vision, even when reality may not support it (i.e. WeWork). This is the great paradox of the founder—needing to thread the needle between having a strong enough vision to motivate others and being self-aware enough to not get lost in one’s own hype.
To explore an organization’s epistemology, you might ask:
- What sources of truth do people turn to when making decisions?
- How are we balancing vision and data?
- Which voices are loudest when making decisions?
Axiology—what is the good worth striving for?
Left to their own devices, employees may see their job as mainly about financial security and career development, and customers may view the organization as purely profit-motivated. Developing an axiology is about connecting an organization’s work to something of broader importance in the world.
At the travel company, if we had a north star, it was about helping people move beyond the “deferred life plan”—a life spent chasing money and success today so that one day in the future they might be able to do the things they really care about.
This came directly from my own experience, having spent a year in my early 20s grinding on a startup that we eventually shut down. We had been primarily motivated by hopes of an exit and had no real connection to the mission behind what we were doing. When I finally moved on from the company, I felt like I’d wasted a prime year of my life.
I didn’t want to keep living for the future, so I decided to start traveling, and eventually started organizing group trips, which turned into a business. When I’d tell people this story, they would understand in a deeper way the meaning behind what we were doing. However, we never made this an intentional part of our public narrative, even though it could have helped frame the experience for every one of our customers.
Many founders have stories like this that give context to their work that could be shared more intentionally to bring meaning into the organization.
To reflect on your organization’s axiology, you can ask:
- Why do we exist?
- What is the ultimate goal we’re working for?
- How might we share that with others?
Praxeology—how should we act to reach our goals?
From an organizational perspective, praxeology is an organization’s strategy—the roadmap a company has laid out for how it plans to go about accomplishing its mission.
While there are countless books on corporate strategy, from a worldview perspective, it’s critical to make sure people understand how the organization is planning to accomplish its goals. If there isn’t a clear strategy, or if that strategy doesn’t seem feasible, people can begin to feel like the work they’re doing is meaningless.
This is perhaps one of the hardest parts of running a startup: in an environment of uncertainty, strategic shifts are common and necessary. A founder’s role in this context is to reframe setbacks in a way that allows the team to still feel like they’re on track to reach their goals—like their work still matters.
To reflect on praxeology, you can ask:
- Where are we going, and how will we get there?
- Is this clear to those at every level of the organization?
- Do I believe our strategy is attainable? Does the team?
- How does our strategic story allow for possible setbacks?
Eschatology—how does our work connect to matters of life and death?
Traditionally, eschatology pertains to beliefs about death and the afterlife. For secular organizations, eschatology is about connecting the story of an organization to meaning-making in the face of mortality.
In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, Crossfit founder Greg Glassman talked about how most Americans experience a slow, decades-long decline of function at the end of their lives, unable to do what they enjoyed during their younger years.
In contrast, he said, the goal of Crossfit is to extend people’s years of wellness and independence, giving them a rapid decline at the end instead of slowly withering away in a group home. In a sense, you can think of this as a statement about how Crossfit helps its customers deal with the inevitability of aging and death.
If you sell B2B software, eschatology may feel less relevant or accessible. However, no matter your industry, your employees are still mortal and at some point are likely to ask, “Is this how I want to be spending my limited time here on earth?”
Perhaps your eschatology is that by creating a stable business, your teammates can build families and pursue their dreams outside of work. Or maybe you focus on creating a kind and collaborative workplace culture, so the time your team spends at work is as enjoyable as possible.
Either way, honoring mortality is a force multiplier to meaning-making, as it connects your organization’s story to what philosopher Paul Tillich called “matters of ultimate concern”—things that pertain to the ultimate drama of life and death.
To reflect on eschatology, you can ask:
- How does our offering connect to living well in the face of death?
- How can I honor the mortality of my customers and employees in how we talk about what we do?
- What do we hold sacred in our work? What are our matters of ultimate concern?
Crafting shared meaning
Developing a worldview is an important aspect of being a leader. By analyzing and articulating the Big Questions that inform your beliefs and actions, you can gain a deeper understanding of how to make and share meaning.
By going through this process, you not only make meaning for your team, but also for yourself. The more you deepen your own sense of life meaning, the more you’ll be able to share that with others.
Once you’ve developed answers to these questions, it’s often best to communicate them to others in the form of a story. While religions do typically contain lists of beliefs—like the Ten Commandments, the 12 steps, or Buddhism’s many lists—the bulk of the teaching in most traditions is wrapped up in myths and stories.
If you’re finding it difficult to come up with answers to the questions above, you can also reflect on stories from your life or organization that touch on the Big Questions in some way. These will form the backbone of what you’ll ultimately share with others, and can be an easier way in.
Everyone’s beliefs are unique, and the goal of understanding worldviews is not to impose our own beliefs on others, but to use this knowledge to connect and collaborate more effectively.
By reflecting on your ontology, cosmology, epistemology, axiology, praxeology, and eschatology, you can better understand your own beliefs and those of your team, and use this knowledge to create a shared meaning-making experience.
Max Depree, former CEO of furniture company Herman Miller, once wrote that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
Are you up for the task?
Casey Rosengren is a founder, executive coach, and community strategist based in New York.
If you’d like to learn more about meaning-making, Casey is offering an eight-week course in collaboration with Every—Mindful Values—which explores a values-based approach to meaning-making based on recent research in behavioral psychology. If you’re interested, check out the site, or you can sign up for a free introductory session.
*Different scholars have chosen different Big Questions when thinking about worldview, but the six philosophical domains above are the ones I have found most useful for analyzing belief systems.