Why purpose is an essential part of leadership and what makes a purposeful leader
To learn more about developing this Leadership Quality, read How Coaching Exercises Can Help You Develop into a Successful Future Leader
Leadership is 10% strategic acumen, 20% people skills and 70% purpose.
These percentages may be a bit off, but it doesn’t really matter.
The point I want to make is that purpose is essential for leadership. Without a strong and inspirational purpose, there is no leadership. It cannot exist.
In this article, we will establish why purpose is essential for leadership, and then we will expand on what makes a purposeful leader.
Why purpose is essential
Human beings are moved by self-interest but also by an overarching purpose that goes beyond ourselves.
Simon Sinek explained it well in his book Start with Why. People are moved by the why of things, not the what or how. They want to know their reason for being and inherent values, and if they are aligned with theirs, they will go for it.
Plenty of research demonstrates that people are more moved by something bigger than themselves than their own self-interest.
Most people, with the exception of sociopaths and psychopaths, want to be good, want to help others, and want to make their little contribution to building a better world.
People usually want to grow in their careers, get a promotion, earn more money, be recognised by others, and many other things centred on themselves. That’s true.
They would like to do all that, but they would like to do all that by leaving a positive impact on the world, by making it better.
They want to pursue a purpose worth pursuing.
“I am building a cathedral, and you?”
You have probably read or heard the apocryphal story about the three bricklayers or stonemasons working on a cathedral, with very different attitudes.
When asked what they were doing, the first one answered with an exhausted look, “I’m laying bricks to feed my family”.
The second one was equally tired and responded in a similar vein: “I’m building a wall.”
The third one seemed happy to be doing what he was doing. When asked, he replied with a gleam in his eyes: “I’m building a great cathedral”.
Who do you think had the higher purpose, and who went to work happier every day?
Managers force compliance, leaders inspire through a purpose
There is an eternal debate about the differences between being a manager and a leader.
One is more tactical, the other strategic; the former manages the day-to-day tasks, the latter inspires through a vision, et cetera.
All the differences can be summarised in just one statement: managers force compliance, leaders inspire.
They inspire through an engaging and inspiring purpose.
A leader needs followers to exist, and in order to have followers, you need a purpose.
From all this, we can surmise that without purpose, there is no leadership.
As simple as that.
The Purposeful Leader
All purposeful leaders have five main characteristics:
– A strong personal purpose
– A clear vision
Let’s look at them one by one.
A strong personal purpose
Before focusing on team, organisational or other externally focused purposes, it is essential to start with oneself.
We need to start with a strong personal purpose.
Why are you here? What are you supposed to be doing in this world? What makes you happy?
These are among the most important questions you should be asking yourself. Sadly enough, most people don’t think much about them. For example, only 25% of American adults say they have a clear sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
It is a similar story in other countries.
A strong personal purpose can be approached from many different angles. You can have an integrated purpose overarching your life as a whole, or you can have different purposes for different areas: a health purpose, a career purpose, a purpose about your family life, etc.
It doesn’t matter much. It is vital to have a clear life purpose, and then all the other purposes for the different elements comprising your life will naturally stem from it.
You can do different exercises to find your purpose, like visualisation techniques, a vision board or a vision mandala, and many others. For example, I recently wrote about an approach to finding your career purpose, which you can adapt to other aspects of your life.
I will write about other exercises and tools in the future, so watch this space.
A clear vision
We have all heard about organisational purposes, mission statements, visions and the like.
It often sounds like management guru mumbo-jumbo, but it is crucial.
Yogi Berra once said, “you’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
A vision tells us where to go, our direction of travel. If you don’t know where you are going, it will be difficult to get there.
From Stephen Covey to Jim Collins to other management gurus and thinkers, all have highlighted the importance of a vision to engage the teams. I may not always agree with them, but the gurus are right on this one.
A vision is important, but it cannot be any vision, it has to come from a purpose.
It has to have a reason for being that is enticing and engaging, usually, that means it has to be about something beyond personal gain.
The best visions are about making the world a better place in some way.
According to research from Harris Kumanu, when employees understand the organisational purpose, share it, and have the autonomy to enact it their own way, then the magic happens. This is what brings high engagement.
A leader with a strong personal purpose aligned with the organisational purpose and who can translate that purpose into a clear vision for their team and organisation will be unstoppable.
Having a purpose is about wanting to impact the world positively. It’s about having the right values, living by them and being guided by them.
As I wrote elsewhere, there are no good or bad values, as values are a product of our history, background, cultural surroundings, life experiences, and many more factors, most of which are subjective and relative.
That doesn’t mean all values have the same weight or that all of them will help us build a better society, live happy lives and have better relationships with each other.
Some values promote harmony, while others encourage tension and conflict. Which ones are preferable? That’s another value judgement in itself. You see, it is difficult to talk about values without making value judgements.
It is not my place to tell others what values they should live by or tell leaders what the right values are for them. That’s a choice each of us, including our leaders, must make.
You need to live by your values, but be clear about what those values are and live by them. Really live by them. Don’t just use them as empty words to convince and persuade others, and yourself, that you have your heart in the right place.
The purposeful leader knows their values and lives by them daily. Their team members and followers also understand those values and follow them because they are aligned with them.
They also believe their leader is authentic about them, which brings us to the next characteristic.
Nobody follows a phoney leader. Nobody likes fake.
We all love authenticity.
A purposeful leader needs to be authentic. Above anything else, they need to be themselves.
This means they need to accept and love themselves first, which isn’t always a given.
To be authentic, you must first be self-aware and know yourself well, then accept yourself and be OK with who you are. Once you do that, it’s easy to be authentic and not pretend to be someone else.
It also helps to have a meaningful purpose that goes beyond personal interest. It is easy to be yourself and authentic when working towards achieving a lofty goal that will help others.
This sounds like a self-evident truth, which it is, but it is incredible how many people have never thought about this or never realised it.
A leader without followers is not a leader. They have nobody to lead. I would go as far as saying that the followers make a leader and not the other way around.
It is a specific situation and the followers who tacitly give the baton of leadership to a particular person. It is not the company structure or the hierarchy that will provide them with that authority.
A great leader will have followers who will follow them over the hill and take risks with them.
Why? Because they feel inspired and engaged by that leader.
And once again (you see the pattern, right?), a leader will need an inspiring, engaging and aspiring purpose and vision to achieve that. Without a purpose, there is no following others over the hill.
In a symbiotic embrace, a leader gives purpose and meaning to their followers, and the followers provide purpose to the leader.
If you have these five qualities, congratulations, you are a purposeful leader.
If you don’t, don’t worry, they can be learned and developed. Like most things in life, with some effort and dedication, you can get to master them.
The starting point is the reflection on your life purpose. Once you have defined that, the rest becomes easier. If you find your real purpose, the one that feels right to you, all the rest will be more straightforward.
It will be relatively easy to create a strong vision that comes from your stated purpose or to find an organisation or a leader whose vision aligns with it. Focusing on values and being authentic will come naturally to you. If your purpose is in the right place, you will have people following you.
The most important thing to consider here is that being a purposeful leader is not an end in itself.
Your aim shouldn’t be to become a purposeful leader but to find your real purpose and live a life according to it and your values. That’s it.
All the rest will be a natural consequence of it.
For more on purpose, please read Purpose and the Lion Tracker we All have Within