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Unleashing the Power of Purpose

When we have a sense of purpose, we tap into the full range of our personal power. We are capable and confident. We challenge boundaries and received wisdom. We are infinitely resourceful, resilient and creative. Our motivation to act and to change is integral to our being, and the source of our energy to keep going when otherwise we would be exhausted. What’s more, we excite and engage others with our passion; they find themselves making connections with our purpose and, if there is sufficient overlap between us, we join together.

The twentieth century US anthropologist, Margaret Mead is quoted as having said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Every change in our world has been the result of (initially) small groups of people who have bonded over a common purpose and, as a result, released an unstoppable human energy.

These movements can create positive transformation in society; think about the Grameen Foundation . The Foundation grew from the bold vision of Muhammad Yunus to end poverty. It now serves over 8 million people in Bangladesh; providing micro-finance through the Grameen Bank. The model is being copied in many other countries of the world.

The same energy can be harnessed for the benefit of the few, and to the great detriment of humanity. We only need to think of the Nazi movement or Apartheid South Africa in our recent history.

All of the examples that come to mind have one very important ingredient at their core; purpose.

When we have a sense of purpose, we tap into the full range of our personal power. We are capable and confident. We challenge boundaries and received wisdom. We are infinitely resourceful, resilient and creative. Our motivation to act and to change is integral to our being, and the source of our energy to keep going when otherwise we would be exhausted. What’s more, we excite and engage others with our passion; they find themselves making connections with our purpose and, if there is sufficient overlap between us, we join together.

The power of purpose is why humans achieve amazing things that may seem to most of us to be exceptional and even impossible.

The power that purpose releases is therefore important for us as leaders to understand. Imagine if even half of your people presented the behaviour described above. How would your organisation be different? How would it be performing?

The good news is that the power of purpose is very fundamentally human – and we may be leaders, but we are human first. So why do we find it do very hard to tap into this great source of energy and creativity?

The management guru Gary Hamel  said recently that modern management principles were developed in the first half of the 20th century, by people born in the second half of the 19th century. Think about it. I don’t know how long you have been working for, but in my 30 years in organisations the way we manage people has changed very little.

In 1911 Frederick Taylor launched Scientific Management. His model was based on the idea that there needs to be a clear separation between the role of workers and managers. He created the mindset of workers being elements of a system of value production in much the same way as machines. Work could be broken down into simple, standardised tasks that could be repeated according to strict instructions. The approach produced many of the management processes we take for granted today; training, SOPs, targets, incentives and rewards, performance measurement and appraisal, continuous improvement, absence and discipline.....and so on.

Where does this mindset fit in the modern, innovative, knowledge-based, collaborative organisation? Even if we do not view our people as “cogs in a wheel”, we do still use many tools designed for that means of production to create value from organisations that are fundamentally very different. Whenever there is a conversation about motivation in an organisation, it usually becomes one about money and reward. When we talk about transforming performance, we most often reach for continuous improvement tools such as Lean.

And yet, there right in front of our collective leadership noses is the untapped potential of the power of purpose.

Leading with the power of purpose involves having very different conversations with our people; human dialogue about what really matters and making our working lives meaningful.

Leading with the power of purpose also involves clarity.  Clarity is not the same as detail; in fact detail is the arch enemy of clarity; just re-read your business plan if you don’t believe me.

Here are some of the conversations that I have had that unleash the power of purpose.

Organisational Purpose

Start at the beginning – what is the purpose of your organisation? What purpose does it serve in the world that is meaningful to you in 15 words or less?

The loss of meaningful purpose at organisational level is in part to blame for our global troubles. We filled the purpose vacuum with a damaging purpose of making ever increasing profits at whatever cost and risk.

This conversation always begins with the mission statement, the strategy, the business plan and KPIs. Stay with it with an inquiring mind and it gets to much more meaningful places. One pharmaceutical manufacturing team expressed theirs as “to ensure that no patient anywhere in the world goes a day without their medication.” They supply a drug that gives quality of life and life itself to sufferers of a rare disease. Their purpose has both clarity and is deeply meaningful at a human level.

The clarity of the purpose means that people can be self-directed’ when they don’t know what to do, or things go wrong, the purpose sign-posts the right way. The human meaning in the purpose connects to our basic desire to do meaningful work.

Making Meaning

Throw away the sixty slide, town hall presentation and engage your business unit team in making meaning. Present them with your 15 word purpose and simple ask “What does this mean for us?” You don’t make something meaningful for others they have to find it for themselves. Your job is to create space for them to enquire, discover and experiment. Resist the temptation to correct or wordsmith. Instead coach and ask questions that keep the focus on purpose. For example;

“What do we need to do to deliver that purpose?”
“How will we need to be/ behave?”
“In what way does that contribute to our organisation purpose?”

Once you have a clear, meaningful articulation of what you need to do and how you need to be, you can also articulate your own team purpose in the same way as the Organisation one above.

Why is that important to you?
Most people I meet in organisations have lost, or have never had a sense of purpose related to their work. I ask them two simple questions ;

“What do you do?” and
“Why is that important to you?”

I borrowed these seemingly simple questions from Geoff Bellman's work. The second is actually very difficult for most people – not least because I keep asking it until the really meaningful stuff surfaces. Once the stuff that connects to our values and beliefs begins to surface, we tap into the deepest source of our energy and power.

These are just three transformational conversations; there are many more. What they all have in common is the search for ever increasing levels of clarity, meaning and purpose. They are the tools of tomorrows leadership; the one that unleashes the amazing potential and power of people.

 

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