'Purpose' is a complex concept – and yet it has become such a household word in most organisations. A purpose statement aims to capture an organisation's reason for being or, in other words, 'why we exist'.
It took me years to acknowledge my cynicism towards most things' purpose'. I have some biases that favour the tangible and measurable and tend to dismiss the intangible as 'fluffy' (as if that is an insult).
All of this changed for me when I grasped the absence of 'purpose' in parts of politics.
Instead of working towards changing things for the better, all you can do is gear yourself up to win the next election.
That's what it is to be without a purpose. Apart from using it to win again, you don't know what to do with the power given to you. You don't have a vision or direction on how to make things better.
The effects are devastating. The absence of purpose creates a deafening emptiness that you might not even notice because you are busy talking about winning. The more this emptiness closes in, the louder you talk about winning, and the more you want to be seen as a winner.
In politics, the difference between 'winning' and 'purpose' is stark because you 'win' only every couple of years. Hence, the absence of the meaning of victory becomes very obvious quite quickly.
In business, the mechanism is less obvious. Here, it is easy to keep yourself busy with winning. You can make every day about winning, as well as every week, every quarter and every year. Indeed, you can make every meeting about winning; There are so many battles to be won! Moreover, winning can take many forms: scoring the highest sales, acing the next board meeting, launching a new product or signing the biggest deal.
It is tempting to make it so much about winning that you overlook the question to what end you are winning. However, after a while, the rewarding and addictive winner's high that provides self-validation to many starts receding. As the façade of being a 'winner' becomes grandiose, the meaning of winning gets eroded silently in the background – until it doesn't matter anymore if we win. What echoes louder and louder is the question: what for am am I winning? Why?
On an individual level, think of athletes who walk away from their sports despite 'winning' because 'they don't feel it anymore'.For organisations, it often means that customers lose their loyalty to your brand or that your employees leave in numbers. Tragically, some organisations respond to this crisis by intensifying the drum to 'win more'. However, more noise does not fill the emptiness.
In a nutshell: winning only for the sake of winning is not a winning strategy!
Do your team and organisation have a purpose beyond short-term and short-lived goals such as making money, pleasing shareholders and getting through the next transformation? It is a confronting question, especially if your immediate answer is no. The insecurity that comes from not having an affirmative answer can make many cynical and stop them from engaging with 'fluffy purpose'. Still, it's not helpful to shame organisations who have not brought their 'purpose' to the forefront. The chances are that it is tacitly present – just not yet cultivated and therefore not used to its full potential.
If you have a purpose statement, check if it is alive. Does it mean something real? Does it guide decision making in your team or organisation? (It does not guide if all decisions are made 'pragmatically' to make money.)
As a leader, you can ask yourself:
What's your relationship with winning – and at what cost?
- What does your 'purpose' do for you? And how does your company's purpose help your company? (If you feel you don't get anything from purpose, don't let a cynical response get the better of you too quickly. Stick with the question. It is an important one. It might take time to realise the benefits and effects.)
- Talk about the purpose of your team or organisation – and more importantly, ask your people about what does it do for them. As a senior leader, your role is to ensure that 'purpose' is vital and present.