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The more I witness organisations that are struggling to succeed, or survive, or just to run harmoniously, the more I see an absence of purpose. Most of these organisations have a great vision, mission and strategic plan, but lack the spark to pull it all together.

In his book, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, Nikos Mourkogiannis records that “…purpose – not money, not status – is what people most want from work. Make no mistake: they want compensation; some want an ego- affirming title. Even more, though, they want their lives to mean something, they want their lives to have a reason”.

You can’t find much fault with that!

Purpose is not often discussed in the context of a business. The concept however is straightforward. Why does the organisation exist? What does the organisation do? “Purpose matters because it makes work meaningful and integrated into my life; it enables me to feel pride in what I do and liberates me to do it better” observes one of Mourkogiannis’s subjects (p.15).

And, purpose is not a new concept – it has long been recognised. For example, when Henry Ford was sued by his own shareholders in 1914 for breach of fiduciary responsibility, he argued from the witness stand that in effect businesses run solely for shareholder profit would ultimately make less money than businesses run for purpose. Ford was ahead of his time on both accounts!

Mourkogiannis makes the point that “where the company is driven by a purpose, the vision, mission and values flow naturally from that purpose. People don’t need to be “aligned” – they already have been attracted to the organisation, as employees or customers, by its purpose.”

Let’s explore these concepts further:

  • Stripped bare, vision is a statement about where you want to go as an organisation. It is a future state.
  • And your mission is the path that you take to get from where you are now to that future position enunciated in the vision.
  • A common element of many vision statements is to be number one at what you do.
  • And what you do should be your purpose. Purpose is what you do every day as part of the journey to achieve your vision.
  • Effective organisations are those that are fit for purpose at every point on that journey.
  • If you are not fit for purpose then your journey/mission can be very rocky.

What are some of the symptoms of organisational problems in terms of purpose? There are many but commonly they include morale problems (things are flat, there is a shortage of energy, people do not really believe what is been said and/or done); calls for a new strategy (often a call from a rediscovery of the foundations of the existing strategy); execution problems (the targets are okay but the actions taken are inappropriate) and concerns over reputation (actions debase core values).

There is little to be gained by simplistic approaches often used to address these (like restructuring, for example.) There is no point trying to align the people if you are trying to misalign them with their understanding of, or belief in purpose.

Purpose is like a moral compass, pointing you in the right direction. It gives the business a clear sense of its reason to exist. It can and should be the test applied to each and every action you plan to take – is the proposed action consistent with the purpose? Will it contribute to achievement of our vision? Does it reflect our values? If clearly defined a purpose will excite and engage all stakeholders, especially staff and customers. An understanding of purpose enables staff to make better, and more confident, decisions. They are aligned through self-motivation, rather than inducement.

“An understanding of purpose makes it easier to follow the ancient learning ritual – fail and try again, fail and try again, and ultimately succeed.” (Mourkogiannis, p13)

Purpose ultimately provides the focus needed to create a focus on what needs to be done today for you to be successful, because you must succeed at all steps along your journey, you must be fit for purpose no matter how far, or close, your vision.

So, why did I use “subservience” in my title? This is aimed at leaders in organisations and comes from the work of Justin Menkes (Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, 2011). He talks about the very significant impact leaders can have if they are subservient to purpose – and the importance of this “in today’s world of distractions and continual melding of home and work life.” (p.99) Subservience in his terms is the deliberate choice to put the purpose first: to frame all relationships and actions and engagement in the context of purpose.

Drawing on the work of Mourkogiannis and Menkes, it is my belief that the best leaders “discover” the purpose of their organisations through discussion and observation. Yes they can shape it – but not in isolation of the people who make up the organisation, and key stakeholders on the outside. Leaders emerge because they make sense and are able to capture and articulate what an organisation, and its people, needs to do to live its purpose.

And a brief comment about “alignment”. In work, I like to find organisations with a purpose that aligns with mine – to make a difference by helping people and organisations become, and remain, fit for purpose.

If your own purpose aligns with an organisation, then join it or remain with it. If it doesn’t, then find somewhere else to work. That might sound harsh, but it is really about doing something on purpose.

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In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).
The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.
A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.
My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”
1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.
2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.
3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.
4.    Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.
6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.
7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.
8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.
9.    Don’t unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.
10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.
11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.
12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to doleader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.
13.   You as a leader can’t really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.
14.   Don’t delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.
15.   You can’t copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.
Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.
Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6
Ends

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