Leading with Purpose: Fueling the Human Spirit in Times of
Creating a sense of greater purpose for an organization is
perhaps one of the most positive and enduring gifts a leader can
give. A clearly articulated organizational purpose not only
provides members of an organization with a frame for making
sense of the world, but also provides the foundation upon which
to build an organization that is compassionate and resilient
during times of both munificence and uncertainty.
Defining the Greater Purpose for an Organization
How does one define an organizational greater purpose? To begin, we can say what
an organizational purpose is not. It is not a vision statement comprised of
lofty, but achievable goals or objectives (for example, "To be #1 in our
marketplace…to beat out XYZ competitor… to be the premier service provider of
ABC"). It is not a mission statement designed to dictate how members of the
organization are to function on a daily basis (for example, "We will provide the
highest quality products and services at the lowest cost with exceptional
customer care, integrity, respect…"). A statement of greater organizational
purpose supersedes both of these. It is the lifeblood of the organization. It
serves to attract people, both members and non-members, in a deeply human way.
It guides the formation of the organizational vision and mission statements
strategically by separating the organization from the competitive landscape (for
example, "We will not be distracted by the latest fads, we will stay true to our
purpose"), guiding resources towards an articulated purpose ("Is this use of
resources consistent with our core purpose?") and by laying the foundations of a
clear corporate culture ("We are about X. If that resonates with you, join us
and together we can try to accomplish it."). To illustrate, consider a
fictitious example. FARMCO is a large multinational industrial farming equipment
manufacturer and articulates its greater purpose in the following statement:
"To provide innovative agricultural solutions to farmers in order to overcome
starvation and malnourishment in communities, countries, and regions around the
An organizational greater purpose statement is composed of three primary parts:
1.) Meeting a need in the world that makes the world "a better place." The drive
to create something that is positive, meaningful, lasting and greater than any
one individual is the heart and soul of the greater purpose statement. Similar
to corporate social action, an organization's statement of greater purpose is
intended to increase social benefits or mitigate social problems (Marquis,
Glynn, and Davis, forthcoming); unlike corporate social action, however, a
greater purpose statement is intended not only for external constituencies. It
is meant to be embraced by organizational members, as well as non-members.
2.) Provision of goods and/or services that society wants. At the core of the
greater purpose statement, is the question, "What is the need in society that we
can meet?" This is the aspect of the statement that bridges the business
component with the drive to achieve something greater in the world. In some
cases, the two are one (for example, a drug company striving to create drugs in
order to cure cancer), but in other cases, it can be one or two degrees removed
from the organization's strategic purpose (for example, a manufacturing company
that creates equipment used to produce the drugs in order to cure cancer).
3.) Aspirational but typically unsustainable. The greater purpose statement of
an organization should aspire to something that can be briefly achieved but is
nearly impossible to sustain (for example, curing cancer, eliminating
starvation, or providing affordable housing for those in need). This final
component is what weaves the purpose statement into the enduring identity of the
organization. As other objectives, goals, and contexts shift and change, a
greater purpose statement with its aspirations can last in a way that provides
stability and consistency (for example, Merck strikes to preserve and improve
human life; Walt Disney strives to make people happy; etc…)
If we revisit our example of FARMCO, we can see the components of a greater
purpose statement clearly at work:
"To provide innovative agricultural solutions to farmers (provision of goods and
services that society wants) in order to overcome starvation and malnourishment
in communities, countries, and regions around the world (aspirational yet
unsustainable as well as meeting a need in the world that makes the world 'a
An organization's statement of greater purpose aspires to meet a need in the
world, or make the world a better place; as such, it resonates with a profound
sense of what it means to be human. The result is that organizational members
are instilled with a greater sense of meaning in what they do, a connectedness
with other members of the organization, and a desire to share that positive
feeling of meaning and acceptance with those beyond the organization.
Assumptions & Observations
- People inherently want to do "good" in the world.
- People are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives, trying to craft a
unique identity and way in which they can contribute in the world.
- Leaders and organizations can provide meaning and inspiration to members of an
- Leaders and organizations can most effectively provide meaning and inspiration
to members of an organization by articulating and following a "greater purpose,"
a way in which the organization will meet human needs and impact the world in a
positive way, particularly in times of crisis.
- Clearly articulated organizational greater purposes contextualize
organizational values in a way that orders their priorities and conveys what
these values look like in action.
- Individuals are more deeply drawn to organizations and leaders that possess
and clearly articulate a greater purpose.
Creating and Instilling an Organizational Greater Purpose
To create and instill an organizational greater purpose, a leader must begin by
asking the following kinds of questions:
What is the need that we, as an organization, may aspire to meet that will make
the world a better place? A greater purpose statement may not only identify a
deficiency or an opportunity in the world, but must also acknowledge the ways in
which addressing those deficiencies or opportunities makes the world "a better
place" (however that is defined by the organization).
What is the implied value or values in the organizational greater purpose
statement? Are we trying to enrich others' lives (enriching lives)? Improve the
environment (environmental conservation)? Make products/services more affordable
for those who need them (affordability)? By defining our master value(s), it
becomes easier to focus the organization's efforts in achieving this purpose. We
have a sense of priority within our set of organizational values and have a way
to determine which values we need to support.
How do we choose to live, interact, and behave as an organization in order to
achieve this higher purpose? What are our everyday values and behaviors that we
want to model as we strive towards our articulated purpose? Do we want to
provide low-cost services? …Highest quality products? …Exceptional customer
care? Do we do this, with compassion, integrity, etc…?
How will we know when we are on the right track? Creating measurable objectives
and goals that support the organizational greater purpose not only reinforces
the purpose, but also provides visible ways for members of the organization to
see progress towards their aspiration. Do we strive to be number one in our
marketplace? Will we measure customer satisfaction as our driver? Is charitable
contribution our focus? Choosing the metrics and goals that line up with the
organizational greater purpose creates consistency, focus, momentum, and buy-in
from the members of the organization as they connect with both the human and
What does it look like (or feel like) when we achieve our organizational greater
purpose? While organizational greater purposes are aspirational by nature, they
can be achieved briefly. When they do, they provide a narrative that can frame
organizational activitiy. They outline the audience, the ways in which we hope
to impact them, and the desired outcome of that interaction. Sharing these
narratives is a powerful tool by which leaders can reinforce the organization's
purpose as well as the individual values, passions, and meanings that members of
the organization share and strive to realize. By offering these brief glimpses
into connecting with their aspiration, organizational members can see, hear, and
feel the impact leaving them inspired, energized, and hopeful.
Organizational Values: The Building Blocks of an Organizational Greater Purpose
An organizational greater purpose interacts with the espoused values of an
organization in three primary ways:
- A greater purpose statement lifts up the most aspirational organizational
- A statement of greater purpose applies organizational values in a focused way
by considering the unique needs and context of the intended recipients.
- A statement of greater purpose provides a way in which narratives can be more
easily generated by offering an example of what "values in action" might look
Greater Purpose, Vision, and Mission Statements
An organization's greater purpose statement creates the foundation upon which an
organization's vision and mission statements can rest. By presenting an
aspirational objective, the greater purpose statement provides a way in which to
frame short and long-term organizational purposes. Given that we as an
organization want to create X in the world, where do we strive to be, relative
to our market context within the next five…ten years? This framing of an
organization's vision statement performs several critical functions:
- It creates an enduring aspirational objective (i.e. organizational greater
purpose) that can survive changing leadership and markets more readily.
- This enduring aspirational objective creates a resilient thread that is more
easily woven into revised and future vision statements, producing a sense of
consistency and focus for the organization as change occurs.
- Vision statements that are based on an organizational greater purpose have a
"humanness" that not only endures but more easily connects members of the
organization to the professed vision.
Equally, the greater purpose statement guides and defines an organization's
mission statement - the way in which the organization desires to behave on a
daily basis. By outlining an organization's aspired end-state (greater purpose)
and how the organization proposes to get there (vision), it becomes much easier
to describe the ways in which the organization wants to behave on a daily basis
as it moves towards its desired aspirational end-state. Primarily, an
articulated organizational greater purpose impacts its mission statement in
three critical ways:
- Foundational organizational values and behaviors are defined in a way that
supports the greater purpose of the organization. The organization can ask
itself, "What values are necessary for us to possess and live by in order to
support our greater purpose?"
- Values and behaviors presented in a mission statement are colored in a way
that is consistent with the organizational greater purpose creating greater
context and specificity to each value. For example, if we examine the commonly
applied mission statement value "Excellence" within the context of an
organization possessing and acting on a greater purpose, we see a richer, more
specific application of that value. "Excellence" is framed within the mission
statement in a way that not only answers the question of "How do I behave
consistently with this value…In what manner…" but also, and perhaps more
importantly, "Why?" Why is "Excellence" important?
- It provides a guideline and criteria in which to frame daily behaviors for
the purpose of reflection and narrative creation. Members of the organization
are able to ask themselves, "Did I/we behave in a way that was consistent with
what we aspire to do/be in the world?"
Organizational Greater Purpose - Creating Resilience, Compassion, and Human
Organizations led by a greater purpose seem to enjoy a deeper sense of
commitment, connection, and compassion among its members. Why? Just as an
organizational higher purpose can positively impact the vision and mission of
the organization, it is also likely that such a purpose, when lived out and
supported by the organization, can have a positive impact on members of the
organization by fostering the necessary elements for members to more deeply and
authentically engage one another. How might this occur? By creating a set of
clearly articulated and applied values that can be grasped and conceptualized as
well as resonate with members of an organization, it sets in motion the
- " Individuals who aspire to be members of an organization that espouses a
greater purpose as well as the underlying values, experience the organization
more deeply and often more powerfully. These individuals reflect on their
experience with the organization by answering the following:
- Is this real? Are the members' behaviors authentic and congruent with their
articulated greater purpose?
- Do I want to be a part of this? Does this resonate with my unique values and
- Individuals who answer affirmatively to the above questions and are hired into
the organization are likely to possess a greater sense of connectedness and
acceptance from the organization from the onset as there is a shared purpose
amongst the members. They tend to identify more strongly with the organization
of which they are a member.
- Identification and connectedness promote trust and provide the necessary
foundation for the members to learn and explore.
- A broader range of humanness ensues as members engage in deeper interpersonal
relationships within the organization. In what other ways are we alike or
different? Curiosity and self-exploration are present.
- Compassion, empathy, and greater acceptance of themselves and others within
the organization are fostered as differences are explored and discovered.
- Members begin to act in similar ways towards the "outside world," engaging in
acts of compassion and exploration, both formally and informally.
- Internally, members share and discuss their interactions with the "outside
world" and reevaluate/reinforce their own sets of values and purpose.
This process performs two critical functions for an organization and its member
in an ever-changing world. First, it provides a place for members to feel deeply
connected and attached to, a place of stability and support. Second, it provides
members a way in which they can interact with each other and with non-members
that is more consistent with their ideal self-image - they behave in ways that
allow them to see themselves and what they do as "good." These two critical
functions produce the underpinnings of resiliency and compassion in difficult
and trying times. Organizational members have a place to which they can retreat
and a way in which to make sense of, and interact with, the world when
uncertainties and instability abound.
In times of rapid change and organizational insecurity, organizations that
possess, articulate, and support an organizational greater purpose enjoy higher
degrees of stability, resilience, and human connectedness. This foundation of
hope and sense-making allows members of these organizations to spread compassion
both inside and out at a time in which when the world needs it most.
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