For most organisations having a mission statement is par for the course but it’s just as important for individuals – leaders in particular – to really hone in on a statement that encompasses their purpose and guides them as they go about their day.
There are two main components to ‘purpose’:
1) Having a sense of purpose – something to look ahead to, to know why you bother with everything else and;
2) Having a sense of purposefulness – knowing that you have a role to play in the present to impact the future.
The Harvard Business Review estimates that fewer than 20% of the leaders they come in contact with “have a strong sense of their own individual purpose” and that “even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement”. There are all these leaders walking around that wouldn’t be able to tell you why they do what they do – that’s deeply troubling for a whole host of reasons.
Does it matter what your purpose is?
At the core of it all, purpose is personal. It’s nice to have a neatly packaged statement but no fancy words are needed. Perhaps, like Joe Simpson in Touching the Void (2003), the purpose is simply “I’m not leaving my wife and kid alone”. Of course, that helped him as he dragged himself across rocks and glaciers with a broken leg, alone, to get back to safety but that seemingly simple purpose can permeate into every facet of life, whether you’re stranded on a mountain in Peru or driving home from work.
Even, at a workshop with the Victorian Police Force, we could see how people mistakenly think that purposes need to be complicated or noble. While everyone else was enthusiastically claiming their purpose was to ‘fight crime’, ‘to get crooks off the street’ and to ‘make the community safer’, one participant said his purpose was to get home to his wife and kids. It doesn’t make those other purposes any less valid or any less important – but it’s being honest about what you’re really doing it all for.
Purpose creates resilient leadership
More than anything else, having a clearly defined purpose is what differentiates resilient leaders from those who crumble at the first sign of adversity. Having a purpose is essential when it comes to those times where a bump appears in the road – without a purpose, you can be thrown off course and be left without any guide as to what you should do next. For leaders, it’s particularly dangerous, not only are you without your purpose but you are also trying to lead your team to success with not so much as a compass.
Brian M. Iacoviello and Dennis S. Charney explore this idea, finding that optimism – having something to look forward to and help you to look on the bright side – is important when encountering trauma but “optimism alone is not sufficient to foster resilience”. Resilience isn’t, after all, the ability to see the best in a bad situation (although that can certainly be helpful), it’s the ability to bounce back and move forward. Iacoviello and Charney claim that having a compass fuelled by purpose is at the heart of resilience and that “the cognitive component of a personal moral compass involved developing and holding a set of core beliefs that are positive about oneself and one’s role in the world, and that few things can shatter.”
This is why many religious people are often observed dealing with adversity quite well. Iacoviello and Charney explore this too, saying that religion and spirituality are important components of creating this moral compass: “Religion and spirituality can provide opportunities for people to ask and gain some understanding of questions about life and personal meaning when facing traumatic situations”. This is not to say that non-religious people are unable to find a purpose but it does help on the road to finding that purpose, that sense that there’s something bigger than just … me.
Getting clear on your purpose
The process of finding your purpose needn’t be overly complicated.
To get a real sense of your purpose ask yourself questions about the small parts of your day as well as the big and ask yourself why you do certain things. What is your purpose as a leader? Who are you leading? What are your goals? Ask yourself what you value and what you believe in.
Cover both the personal and the professional sides of your life – because the two will inevitably intertwine, whether you want them to or not, so you should be ready for it – and find the similarities between what you do at home and what you do as a leader.
Somewhere among all those answers, you’ll find your why.
Don’t stop there. Try to boil it down to one sentence and then put it somewhere you can see, so that you remember your purpose through the times when your team is thriving and through the times when things are not so easy.
It’s important to remember that having a purpose will not make you invincible. It won’t make you miraculously immune to any stresses or challenges but it does equip you to bounce back and move you forward. It’s about knowing why you do the things you do. It helps you set your world up to align with something that’s bigger than the ‘right now’ and it can help you make decisions in every area of life. Having a purpose carries you through.