The stonecutters and the cathedral builder

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 27, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Here is one of the stories I heard at KM Australia as told by John Girard.

On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveller happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveller that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realising that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveller moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveller’s delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stonecutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveller thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.

When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveller until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveller’s eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.”

Girard J.P. and Lambert S (2007) “The Story of Knowledge: Writing Stories that Guide Organisations into the Future” The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management Volume 5 Issue 2, pp 161-172.

In the topic of writing future stories my personal preference is to help people find real stories that reflect where they would like to be in the future. I find that when people write fictitious future stories there is excitement and engagement while they write them, which is a good thing, but when the stories are revisited weeks later people look at each other askance and wonder what drugs people were on.

This type of story is in another category. It’s one that might help to break a mindset and get a group thinking more aspirationally.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. LaDonna Coy says:

    I have actually searched from time to time for this story but not come across it online. Today I opened my reader – and here it is, with citation! Thank you. The first time I heard the story was from Professor Tom Boyd at the University of Oklahoma, in a keynote address given at a regional summit more than 15 years ago (I can hardly believe it has been that long!). By the way, my work is in prevention and social change and this story is a great example of the power of a contagious vision. Seems as important today ever.
    I’m not sure what you mean by helping “people find real stories that reflect where they would like to be in the future”? I hope you’ll write more about your thoughts. Thank you for providing this story.

  2. Hi LaDonna, did we meet at the CPSquare social tools for communities program?
    It would be nice to find the origin for this story. Sounds like it has been retold many times, like all good stories.
    About my future story comment, I mean finding examples that already exist somewhere but perhaps in a tiny pocket of the organisation, and telling these stories of representative of where we would like to be in the future. Some call this the search for positive deviants. I like sci-fi writer William Gibson’s quote: The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

  3. Luke says:

    Shawn – I think you need to differentiate between stories that people write that are personal as compared to those that are organisational or group-based. Certainly, the positive deviant approach would work – but then again, in a workshop setting, something like future backwards or using the Hero-based Storyline to map out a future story I have found to work effectively. Personal stories, on the other hand, are often a bit out there but so long as they resonate with the person who wrote them and wishes to enact them, then there is a strong possibility of a transformative experience.

  4. Vigdis Nordahl Hansen says:

    I found the story in this book – not refering to anyone – could be the original?
    Wenger, Etienne (1998)
    Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity.
    New York: Cambridge University Press.

  5. The stone cutter story is very old and well known. Etienne is just assuming people know it is a traditional story.

  6. Megela Ohare says:

    I shared this story with my Staff and I we discussed it in relation to what we do at wok. I think we defintely have to contribute and have a larger vision for impacting those we work with and society.

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