Bricks, Walls, Cathedrals: A Story-bite to Lead with Vision


A man came upon a construction site where three people were working.  He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard him humming a tune as he worked, and asked, “What are you doing?” The man stood, looked up at the sky, and smiled, “I am building a cathedral!”

The first time I heard this story from a senior executive at General Mills, who was addressing a team as they embarked on a two-day innovation retreat, I was transfixed. He told the story in his own words, relating it to his European travels and his awe when he toured the grand European cathedrals. Emotion came through in his tone of voice, facial expressions, and colloquial language. I thought that he’d created the story, and I was inspired to think big and bold just to live up to his challenge. After all, if the medieval times—without the technology and engineering equipment we have today—could produce such grand-scale and lasting monuments, our potential is limitless!

Since then, I’ve heard this story told several times, and later read about it in Annette Simmons’ book, The Story Factor. Annette characterizes is as a classic “vision story” due to its power to paint a compelling vision and challenge people to think beyond the tactical “brick laying” parts of their work.

Today, I led an ideation session and during our preparations suggested that my client open the meeting with this story. She set aside the typical strategy and data slides and instead inspired the group by telling this story and translating it to the business goals at hand. The team grabbed onto the analogy and, throughout the day, we heard “bricks,” “walls,” “chapels,” and “cathedral” tossed around as they created ideas and insights to build a bold, new future for their organization.

I’ve witnessed the power of story to unify a team around a common goal and imagine a future with courage and confidence. So I encourage you to use stories when you need to galvanize a team around a change objective. It’s OK to “steal with pride” the stories others have told to communicate your goals. As long as you’re transparent about where you learned it, you can make these stories yours!



  1. Zaun on October 2, 2023 at 10:00 am

    The historical references to the construction of cathedrals add a rich layer to the narrative. It beautifully illustrates the concept that visionary leaders leave a legacy that transcends their time. Just as those cathedral builders worked tirelessly, often without seeing the completion of their work, true leaders understand the importance of a long-term vision.

  2. Parker Woodman on July 16, 2021 at 4:35 am

    This is really an great story! Thanks for sharing it.

  3. […] new marketing VP came to visit our San Francisco office and he stopped by briefly to give me some parable about building a wall or a church. I think at the time I thought he was saying something about me working to build the church of the […]

  4. John B on October 22, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    This is such a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing!

  5. […] Let me explain this further by saying that how we place meaning on things determines so much about how we feel about them. (Read the story here of the bricklayer ). […]

  6. […] Let me explain this further by saying that how we place meaning on things determines so much about how we feel about them. (Read the story here of the bricklayer ). […]

  7. rekey Maritza on April 28, 2017 at 4:27 am

    exactly right

  8. […] tracking to a plan, in an ever changing environment plan will soon become obsolete. There is this cliched story of cathedral builder vs person laying bricks. Everyone would want a cathedral builder, but many […]

  9. Scott Walter on July 10, 2016 at 6:55 am

    The third bricklayer is responding from an environment of empowerment. They understand what the final outcome is and how their work supports achieving it; they feel responsible and take actions to ensure what they are doing will help achieve a success. As such, they will take actions without being told or directed by leaders; they will apply their internal creative talents to achieve success, and will recognize and take advantages of opportunities that will help achieve success (ie: employing new methods, materials, training, and more).

    • Raymond on April 15, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      Very insightful reflection on a story which I use a lot. Didn’t realize there was so many facets to it as with any allegory or parable.

  10. JG on August 14, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Love this story. Thanks for keeping me focused on the cathedral I’m building!

  11. Jodie on August 14, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Great story. Needed to hear it as Zi am in the process of building a cathedral!

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