Ron Erickson, CEO of the Holiday Companies, explained, “This is why we’re in business.”

The context: Erickson was returning to the United States from Canada in a private jet. A useful privilege when you travel that way is avoiding long customs lines by re-entering the U.S. in such places as Fargo, North Dakota instead of a larger airport.

A potential inconvenience, though, is that if the local customs and immigration agent takes an interest in you, there’s no line to keep moving. So it was that the agent in question entered the jet and asked, “Are you Mr. Ronald Erickson?”

Not knowing where the conversation was going, Erickson answered briefly and in the affirmative. Nonetheless, the official continued his inquiry.

Except it wasn’t an inquiry. It was a sincere and effusive thank-you, to Erickson, for opening a Holiday Station Store in the area, telling him how much difference it had made for a lot of people.

A Holiday Station Store might not seem all that important, but to this guy it had become the place to take his son Sunday mornings to get pancakes, and to a lot of other people in the Fargo area, it was a place to go, get coffee, chat, and buy gasoline. In these and a dozen other small ways, the Holiday Companies had made a big difference in the community.

Which is why Erickson told the story to a meeting of his top store managers, who heard him explain, “This is why we’re in business.”

It’s worth noting that Erickson is a shrewd businessman, not a touchy-feely sort. He has no interest in the limelight but a lot of interest in the arcana of the petroleum industry.

The Holiday Companies is a keep-the-joint-running kind of enterprise — it started as a single grocery store in a small Wisconsin town and wins by being better than anyone else at the fundamentals: Choosing the right locations, optimizing its merchandise mix, keeping its operating costs under control, and hedging fuel costs to maximize margins.

And it innovates, constantly refreshing the whole concept of what convenience stores should be and how they should be run.

So when Erickson didn’t say that the point is to maximize profits — it’s to make a difference in the communities it serves — he wasn’t just grandstanding. He was explaining that this is how the Holiday Companies stays profitable.

Speaking of retail, my wife was shopping at a JCPenney not too long ago, when, after just a bit of small talk, a sales associate provided quite a sophisticated account of new CEO Ron Johnson’s ambitious and controversial strategy to redefine and reposition the chain, reducing the number of coupons, promotions, sales, and other special events that meant nobody ever entered a JCPenney otherwise.

Johnson, the sales associate explained, had decided that relying on an endless stream of gimmicks instead of solid merchandising was, in the end, a losing strategy, so he had to try something bold and different.

We have two CEOs, with very different styles and facing very different situations, who understand that being smart is never enough to lead a large organization. Not by itself.

Making sure everyone is smart about what matters. Making sure that everyone understands what you’re trying to accomplish, and why you chose a particular path … that’s what makes the difference between leading people and dragging them along.

Johnson probably faces the tougher situation. JCPenney has to redefine its customer’s expectations. That isn’t an instantaneous process, as Netflix found out last year, even if your strategy is the right one … and nobody ever knows if it’s the right one until hindsight has had a chance to replace foresight. Meanwhile, you’ll inevitably disappoint your customers in the short term. Which is why every sales clerk needs to understand why.

But Erickson faces the trickier challenge, because “Yes, of course we want strong profits — that’s why I want every employee focused on making a difference in our customers’ lives and communities, not on just making a buck. And no, this doesn’t mean you get an unlimited budget for it,” is a pretty subtle message.

Subtle, but smart, because for most people most of the time, knowing they’re making a difference is a lot more energizing than knowing they’re making one more dollar for the company.

Your take-home: If you hold a leadership position, think through how you help employees connect the dots between what they do and something that matters.

It helps, of course, if the company you work in does something that matters. Which it probably does, even if the company’s top executives have lost sight of it … something that, sadly, happens far too often.

And if it doesn’t do something that matters, I have a question:

Why are you working there?