The Quest for Leadership Purpose

  • 9 mins read

?Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning.? ~ Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? (Harvard Business Review Press, 2006)
Great leaders have a profound impact in their communities, families and key societal realms (i.e., sports, politics). Nowhere is good leadership more important than at work, where we devote considerable time and energy.
If you want to drive a high-performance organization, you must find ways to make employee performance meaningful. Sadly, many executive teams focus on numbers instead of words when trying to motivate people to achieve more. Carrots and sticks may work in some situations, but leaders must engage hearts and minds to truly excite people to give their all.
There is a deepening disenchantment with traditional-style management. We are increasingly suspicious of the skilled and charismatic boss who echoes corporate mission statements and jargon. The search for authenticity in those who lead us has never been more pressing.
While concepts such as quiet leadership and servant leaders are popular in business bestsellers, corporations are slow to change selection criteria. Leadership continues to be about results. Organizations are not immune to the lure of the heroic CEO.
While great results aren?t achieved by inspirational leadership alone, they may not be possible without it. Employees choose to come to work and give their best?or not. Leaders who excel at capturing hearts, minds and souls provide purpose, meaning and motivation.
Know Your Leadership Purpose
How can we expect our leaders to provide a sense of meaning and purpose when they themselves struggle with self-knowledge, purpose and identity?
?We?ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose,? confirm Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook in ?From Purpose to Impact,? published in the May 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. ?Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.?
When interviewed at work about what gives their lives meaning, executives parrot the latest corporate propaganda:

  • ? ?Increasing shareholder value?
  • ? ?Delighting customers?
  • ? ?Becoming the best in product innovation?
  • ? ?Delivering worldwide more ?X? than our competitors?

When asked the same questions at home, executives admit to profound symptoms of meaninglessness, work-related stress and dysfunctional family lives. They typically fall back on generic and nebulous catchphrases when asked to describe their purpose:

  • ? ?Help others excel?
  • ? ?Ensure success?
  • ? ?Empower my people?

Just as problematic, hardly any have clear plans for translating purpose into action.
Defining ?Purpose?
Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes
?Your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive,? note Craig and Snook. ?Whether you?re an entrepreneur at a start-up or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your purpose is your brand, what you?re driven to achieve, the magic that makes you tick.?
It?s not what you do, but how you do your job and why?the strengths and passions you bring to the table, no matter where you?re seated. While you may express your purpose in different ways and contexts, it?s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you.
At its core, leadership purpose springs from your identity: the essence of who you are. Purpose is not a list of the education, experience and skills you?ve gathered in life. It?s definitely not some jargon-filled slogan.
Purpose should be specific and personal, resonating with you, and you alone. It doesn?t have to be aspirational, cause-based or who you think you should be. It?s who you can?t help being.
Find Your Purpose
Finding your leadership purpose is not easy. If it were, we?d all know exactly why we?re here and be living it every minute of every day.
You can begin to find your purpose by:

  1. 1. Developing Your Stories. Mine your life story for common threads and major themes. Your goal is to identify your core strengths, values and passions?the pursuits that energize you and bring you joy. The following prompts may prove helpful:
  • ? What did you especially love to do when you were a child, before the world told you what you should or shouldn?t like or do? Describe how a key moment made you feel.
  • ? Identify two of your most challenging life experiences. How have they shaped you?
  • ? What do you enjoy doing now that brings out the best in you?
  1. 2. Working with a Coach or Mentor. It?s almost impossible to identify your leadership purpose alone. You need help from people who act as mirrors. Retain the services of an experienced executive coach, or find a qualified mentor. You can also seek feedback from a small group of trustworthy peers.
  2. 3. Writing a statement of purpose. After completing the first two steps, take a shot at crafting a clear, concise and declarative statement of purpose: ?My leadership purpose is _______.? The words in your statement must be your own. Don?t pull buzzwords or clich?s from a business book or article. Your statement must capture your essence and call you to action.

As you review your stories, you?ll likely find a unifying thread. Pull it to uncover your purpose, and then begin to share it with others. Your payoff will be an increased comfort level as you articulate your purpose. You?ll build trust by creating the authenticity that followers seek in their leaders.
The Quest for Authenticity
The demand for authentic leadership has never been more evident. As hierarchies dissolve, only truly authentic leaders can fill the void. Power, trust and followership depend on leaders who know their purpose, express it in words and deeds, and help others find and implement their own raison d??tre.
We are beginning to realize that we need personal meaning and purpose to guide us. No corporation is going to provide it for us. We must also communicate our purpose more openly if anyone is going to follow us.
Without a clearly articulated purpose, meaning is elusive. People may know what?s expected of them, but they may not recognize why they should care. Leaders who know themselves and what truly matters express authenticity and inspire others to follow suit. Authentic leadership has become the most prized organizational and individual asset.
While these truths may seem evident, little training and development are devoted to helping leaders discover their sense of purpose. Instead, leadership training encourages conformists or role players with an impoverished sense of what really matters.
If leaders fail to express what they stand for, followers aren?t going to join them. Leadership can never be taught as something we do to people, but rather the way we interact with people. Leadership must always be viewed as a relationship between leader and follower.
As Goffee and Jones state: ?Effective leaders have an overarching sense of purpose together with sufficient self-knowledge of their potential leadership assets. They don?t know it all, but they know enough.?
Unique Leadership Qualities
While theories abound about good leaders? characteristics and traits, our search for the right qualities may be all wrong. There may not be any universal leadership characteristics. What works for one person may not work for another.
Instead, we need to pinpoint each aspiring leader?s distinctive assets and effectively mobilize them. What?s special about each leader? How can individual strengths be deployed as powerful leadership skills?
Three Leadership Axioms
Goffee identifies three fundamental axioms about leadership:

  1. 1. Situational. What?s required of leaders will always be influenced by the situation. An effective leader observes and understands existing situations, a skill called situation sensing. Great leaders excel at this. They?re in tune with what?s going on beneath the surface, adapting and selecting their skills to form the most effective response. At times, they may choose to conform; in other situations, they?re unafraid to risk being different. They deploy their best personal assets according to context. Not only do they reframe situations; they influence and reshape them to benefit the organization and the people they lead.
  2. 2. Nonhierarchical. Authority alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for exercising leadership and driving performance. Effective leaders exist at all levels, and successful organizations seek to build leadership capability widely.
  3. 3. Relational. Leadership is always a social construct created by relationships. You cannot lead without followers. Followers, in turn, want their leaders to express feelings of excitement, meaning and personal significance; they want to be part of something bigger. That?s why we seek authenticity from our leaders. We need to be able to trust.

12 Vital Questions
Developing as a leader isn?t easy; there aren?t any secret recipes. In fact, all the leadership books, theories and volumes of material may confuse people who attempt to expand their leadership skills.
You?re better served by taking time to reflect on the following questions from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?:

    1. 1. Which personal differences form the basis of your leadership capability?
    2. 2. Which personal values and vision do you hold for those you aspire to lead?
    3. 3. Which personal weaknesses do you reveal to those you lead?
    4. 4. In which ways do you develop authentic relationships with those you lead?
    5. 5. How well are you able to read different contexts?
    6. 6. When influencing others, do you conform enough?
    7. 7. When influencing others, do you differentiate yourself enough?
    8. 8. Do you know when to hold back and when to connect with others on common ground?
    9. 9. How well do you manage social distance?
    10. 10. How well do you express tough empathy, offering people what they need rather than what they want?
    11. 11. How well do you communicate your personal differences, your weaknesses, your values and vision?
    12. 12. Do you consistently express authenticity across different roles, situations and audiences?
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