How Purpose Is the Driving Force Behind Effective Leadership

Humans are curious by nature. The average toddler will ask the word ‘why’ 288 times a day1. Curiosity is at the heart of all great scientific discoveries and impressive feats of engineering. However, when it comes to business, the ‘why’ of the work is often forgotten in the rush to formulate the ‘what’ and the ‘when’. As 2020 has taught, the only certainty in business is change. Courageous and effective leadership requires clear vision and a strong sense of purpose. The ‘why’ provides direction and motivation in even the most difficult of times. Recognising your ‘why’ is establishing the foundation of your purpose.

Confronting the crisis of conformity

In the past, we have seen countless leaders fall victim to the trap of hubris syndrome. An inflated sense of ego resulting in the failure to provide fresh leadership in struggling times. CEO of the B Team, Halla Tómasdóttir, referred to the term ‘crisis of conformity’ in her 2019 TED discussion about issues in leadership. The year 2020 was the perfect opportunity to address these problems of stagnant thinking in leadership. When the global pandemic hit leaders were suddenly forced to make drastic decisions under tight time pressures. Of course, COVID-19 has left a trail of devastation both directly, with hundreds of thousands dying, and indirectly with people losing businesses and jobs. But, the virus did prompt leaders to ask the difficult questions. What is my purpose? What truly matters to me as an individual and my organisation?

Why purpose matters

When we think about what our purpose in life is, the first thoughts are often vague and ambitious. “Help people” or “make a difference in life” are common examples. Although they may sound exciting and inspiring, it’s difficult to determine what the course of action is to achieve them. A business or organisation will likely have a clear and distinct mission statement, but what about the leader? A Harvard Business Review study found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their purpose2. Even fewer of these leaders are able to articulate their personal purpose in a concrete statement. How can you determine your success as a leader if you are unsure of your motivations?

Article ‘Leadership as purpose: Exploring the role of purpose in leadership practice’ describes purpose as something which “can be seen, in its most general sense, as an aim or objective which guides action – achieving a goal in a particular context.” By creating purpose, you are building specific criteria to inform a course of action and are able to clearly communicate expectations and measures of success. But, how do you create your purpose?

Creating your purpose

Unsurprisingly, searching for purpose as a leader involves reflecting inwardly. Asking yourself the following questions can help to determine your individual purpose.

  • What are my strengths as a leader?
  • What do I value?
  • What do I want my legacy to be?
  • Who do I admire? What traits do they possess?
  • Who do I envy? What traits do they possess?
  • What are some defining lessons from the past?
  • What do I want to achieve in one year? Five years? Ten?

As you explore and answer these questions, you will hopefully begin to see continuous themes surfacing. Perhaps honesty is a trait that you value in others and also a trait pride yourself on as a leader. How do you incorporate this into your leadership style?

John Doerr, Chairman of venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins, champions the Objective and Key Results (OKR) goal setting method. The objective being the direction (or the purpose) and the key results being specific measures which can track the achievement of the objective. The most famous example of successful OKRs can be seen in Google. Sundar Pichai was working on the Chrome browser and set the objective to ‘build the best browser’. Pichai then set the key results to measure number of users over a three-year period. The first couple of years, Pichai failed to meet the goals. But by the third year, they smashed the goal of 100 million users with the achievement of 111 million users. An achievement made by setting a clear goal and sticking to it year after year.

Inspiring your team with purpose

Creating an organisation with a strong sense of purpose fosters a sense of belonging in workers whilst also growing individual expression. As Simon Sinek, the author of the Golden Circle, said “people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” This doesn’t just apply to consumers or clients; it also resonates when building a team. Successful teams are able to combine their individual ambitions and passions to form a collective purpose and clear sense of ‘why’. When hiring, you are not just seeking skills and experience, but also passion and purpose. Sinek further speaks to this idea – “if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if they believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”3

Building trust with your team comes from investing in shared purpose and vision. U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal reflected on this idea of trust in his TED talk ‘Listen, learn…then lead’4.

“I realised that, if they had to go into combat, they would do what we had taught them and they would follow leaders. And I realised that, if they came out of combat, it would be because we led them well. And I was hooked again on the importance of what I did.”

Purpose can also give your organisation a competitive edge. The popular corporate strategy book ‘Built to Last’ by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras acknowledged that purpose was the most significant cause in a few companies maintaining an outstanding performance over such a long period compared to their competitors.

Knowing your purpose is motivating

The ‘carrot and stick’ (rewarding good behaviour and punishing poor behaviour) approach to leadership can be effective in the short-term, however it fails to motivate teams in the longer term. Instead, by using the James Sales’ technique of Motivational Mapping, leaders can understand their team and their individual motivations. If we know that a person is motivated by wealth or making a difference in the world, we know their purpose. As James puts it – “the effective leaders of tomorrow will be those who understand their motivators, who regularly measure their motivators, sustain, replenish and maximise their motivators, and who do the same for their employees.”5

Leaders and their teams use the Motivational Maps to describe, measure and monitor their motivation, making the usually invisible emotional drives visible and quantifiable. The Maps address three key aspects: relationships, achievements, and growth. Start Anew can assist your team in identifying these key motivators and levels of motivation, identifying the strategies which can increase motivation and developing an action plan to implement the techniques of motivation.

Taking your leadership to the next level

Inspired to use these tools for creating purpose and sustaining motivation in your leadership approach? The Start Anew Emerging Leaders or Executive Leaders – Taking Leadership to the Next Level program can provide you with the framework and guidance you require to create meaningful change as a leader within your organisation. The program increases self-awareness, helps tap into your natural leadership style, uses the power of the story, person-centred narrative, cognitive behavioural and dialectical behavioural skills to enable more effective leadership over a six to twelve-month period.


Article written by  India Murphy
(Sponsored by Start Anew)



3. ‘How great leaders inspire action’, Simon Sinek, TED TALKS

4. ‘Listen, learn…then lead’, Stanley McChrystal, TED TALKS

5. ‘Mapping Motivation for Leadership by James Sale & Jane Thomas’, Motivational Maps

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