Leading with Purpose: Fueling the Human Spirit in Times of Uncertainty

By Brandon Mikel Smith and Mary Ann Glynn1

(Back to Leading in Trying Times)

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 world."

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 better place')."

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 organization.
  • 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 non-human objectives.

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:

  1. A greater purpose statement lifts up the most aspirational organizational values.
  2. A statement of greater purpose applies organizational values in a focused way by considering the unique needs and context of the intended recipients.
  3. 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 like.

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:

  1. It creates an enduring aspirational objective (i.e. organizational greater purpose) that can survive changing leadership and markets more readily.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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?"
  2. 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?
  3. 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 Connectedness

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 following:

  • " 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 passions?
  • 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.

[1] Brandon Mikel Smith is a Principal at Fleming & Smith, a firm specializing in individual and organizational renewal (Brandon_Mikel_Smith@bus.emory.edu).    Mary Ann Glynn is a Professor of Organization & Management at the Goizueta Business School, Emory University, Atlanta GA (MaryAnn_Glynn@bus.emory.edu).



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