Fred Kofman is fond of the anecdote about the NASA janitor. You know the one: It's 1961, and John F. Kennedy is visiting the space agency for the first time. He spies a man mopping the floor and asks what his job is. "I'm putting a man on the moon," the janitor replies.

That response exemplifies the crucial distinction between a role and a job. For a company to operate well, says Kofman, vice president of executive development and "leadership philosopher" at LinkedIn, employees must understand the difference in their bones. A role is the set of functional responsibilities they were hired to perform. Roles are all different. By contrast, every employee has the same job: to help her organization win.

Founders get that, and so do their executive teams. But as companies scale, singularity of purpose diffuses, Kofman explains in his book The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership. While leadership's vision stays the same or expands, employees' visions grow narrower. "Entrepreneurs are very clear about the mission. But that awareness gets lost as they start engaging other people," Kofman says. "Each person thinks they should do what they were hired to do instead of help the company succeed, whatever it takes."

Battle of the silos

It's no surprise employees rarely think beyond their job descriptions. A finance person, for example, knows she is supposed to carefully assess the creditworthiness of each prospective new customer. If she deems one too risky she nixes the sale, thus protecting the business. But what if the potential customer is influential, with the power to set off a cascade of sales with a positive review? That could be such a significant opportunity that the rest of the staff thinks it worthwhile.

Or consider a factory manager, whose role is to churn out sufficient product to ensure on-time delivery. Suppose a development team wants to commandeer the floor for a day or two to perform test runs on new designs? "Maybe for the company new product development is 10 times more important than current production," Kofman says. "But what I call 'my job' is to run the plant. I don't want people to make me less efficient, even if they are from my same company."

Traditional metrics reinforce this kind of thinking. Employees are rewarded for hitting their numbers: service calls fielded or defects eliminated or overhead reduced. Under this system, it is in each individual's interest to optimize her own functional cog. If the company tries offering collective rather than individual incentives, however, people become "free-riders" who assume their minimal exertions will be masked by the more vigorous performance of the rest of the organization. "It's a dilemma, because if you want cooperation, you have to make everyone accountable for the whole," Kofman says. "But when everyone is accountable for everything then no one is accountable for anything."

The CEO, of course, has the best global view. But he lacks the granular understanding of a situation that functional workers have. Nor can he waste time playing Solomon whenever employees clash over priorities or collaborations fail.

The leader says, "Look up here"

The dilemma cannot be solved, Kofman says. But it can be managed. What Kofman calls "transcendent leaders" keep employees focused on a single overarching question: "Why are we here?" They articulate the mission over and over, reminding people that, while they bring conviction to their individual battles, those battles must be subordinate to the organization's ultimate victory. And they frame the mission in terms that inspire and make people feel their work is important. "The first thing is to find a mission that would make your 7-year-old child proud of you," Kofman says.

But mission on its own is not enough. Leaders must also define the values that will govern how people work together to resolve their conflicts--how they treat one another and collaborate on solutions that are truly "best" for the company as a whole. Leaders will demonstrate those values themselves, being as transparent as possible, so employees understand how decisions at the senior level are weighed for service to the mission. And they will demand that employees serve only the mission and not themselves. In other words, that they do their jobs.

"The gravitational pull is always going to be toward each person's individual role," Kofman says. "The job of the leader is to defy gravity."