What does purpose mean to leaders today?

In light of our upcoming autumn programme in Bardou, we were interested to learn more about leaders’ views on purpose. In order to do this, Question & Retain, our partners on this research project, contacted 2,869 UK-based senior leaders with 5 questions regarding their leadership purpose*.

This was a compelling project to work on, and helped us develop our thinking about what we see as three core, interlocking constituents of leadership purpose – our key takeaway from the research.

Below in the summary, we explore this schematic in more detail. Before that, here’s an overview of how leaders responded to our 5 questions.

1) Do you feel like you are growing and evolving as a leader?

The majority of respondents answered “yes, I am constantly learning and evolving”. They believed that they achieved a sense of growth and evolution from being placed into new situations, interacting with diverse people and through self-examination.

The majority felt the need to understand themselves, with some stressing the importance of consciously taking time to reflect on their experiences.

Several leaders acknowledged that a continual state of learning is integral to their role, with one stating “the day you think you have nothing to learn is the day to pack up and go home”.

However, some leaders felt that their ability to grow and evolve is tested when under pressure.

2) Do you feel like you have clarity around your individual purpose as a leader?

13% of respondents stated that they had “absolute clarity” around their individual purpose and, in a few cases, were able to distil this into a clear, one-line statement. However, the majority only believed they had clarity around purpose “for the most part”.

Many leaders saw their organisation’s purpose and their own as synonymous; however, some felt this link wasn’t strong enough, or they weren’t passionate about how they connected personally with this purpose. This suggests that, while closely linked, personal and organisational purpose are not the same thing, and that delivering on an organisation’s purpose also requires clarity of vision regarding personal purpose.

Some leaders said that putting purpose into practice is often overtaken by focusing on the day-to-day, especially as environmental factors change.

3) How would you define your purpose?

Responses to this question were almost entirely focussed on leadership style, the most common being inspirational and humanistic. Facilitative and collegiate leadership styles, with an emphasis on “enabling others to fulfil their potential” was also significant, with roughly half of respondents prioritising team and stakeholder interests as their core purpose.

We were curious that respondents’ definition of personal purpose was effectively, “to lead”, rather than, “I lead because…”

4) Do you feel like you consistently lead with purpose?

One in three answered yes and was able to revert to their core purpose mission statements.

However, 67% felt that they lead with purpose only “for the most part”, with several respondents recognising that all leaders “have good and bad days”, and one acknowledging, “I’m not sure that it’s physically possible to be purposeful 100% of the time.”

Interestingly, this group did not go into further detail about what happens when they are not leading with purpose, which poses a question: are such moments perceived as a necessary cycle that creates the opportunity for fresh insight; or as an unguided ship to be avoided at all costs?

5) What would help you develop your purpose as a leader?

Nearly half of all respondents were unsure what would help them develop their purpose.

Of these, the majority felt that space to step back from the demands of operational duties was needed, so that they could see the bigger picture more clearly. Some felt that they would need external help to identify the ways they could develop their leadership purpose and to reflect on it constructively.

In summary

While the majority of respondents felt that they had clarity of purpose, when asked to describe it, it often seemed synonymous with the purpose of their role and/or the purpose of their organisation. Being in sync with organisational purpose is clearly important, but crucially, what seemed to be missing was an individual sense of purpose above and beyond the purpose of the role and the purpose of the organisation.

Interestingly, nearly half of respondents felt unsure about how to develop their leadership purpose. For those who could picture how to develop this, the majority identified that the space to step back from operational pressures would help them to reflect more constructively. Some felt that this stepping back would be further aided by external facilitation and support, but did not have a clear sense of what this might look like.

Why do we think this is important? This research has helped us to see leadership purpose as a flexible relationship between three entities: organisation purpose, role purpose and personal purpose (see diagram above).

We believe this is significant because role purpose and organisational purpose are not – and arguably, should not be – the same thing. When fused together, leaders may struggle to view their organisation or role through a critical lens, to arrive at creative solutions, or have the distance to innovate effectively. In essence, role and organisation purpose may become too caught up in each other’s agendas, with the result that leaders experience a sense of anxiety when these two aspects of purpose stray too far from one another.

What is missing in this merged model of leadership purpose is an independent third site of purpose – personal purpose. It seems to us, that from this location, leaders can think critically and creatively about their organisation’s purpose and their role’s purpose, and be free to think in a more penetrating fashion about all areas of their organisation’s system. In particular, its below the surface drivers, which arguably require the greatest amount of thought.

These interlocking spheres can create tension with each other. But, in the same way that a senior leadership team will have opposing opinions that speak from their differing realms of expertise, these tensions need to be acknowledged and worked with productively in order to create a coherent, functioning whole.

What stands out for us is this. Personal purpose may be both the most important – yet the most neglected – aspect of the interlocking leadership purpose structure that we’re discussing here. Working on personal purpose – and exploring how it relates to role and organisation purpose – requires embracing the notion that there will always be complexity and tension, and that simple answers don’t exist. It requires an investment in time to step back, reflect and work productively with these tensions. We think, from this place, leaders can think more freely, explore and innovate, and ultimately, lead with more purpose.

It would be remiss to not mention the global crisis that has unfolded since embarking on this research. Now, more than ever, we need to pay attention to the systems that we’re all part of, to give serious thought to the below-the-surface drivers at play and how our purpose relates to them. From immediate family to the entire planet, we need to recognise the collective journey that we’re on.

*Research conducted by Question & Retain. The survey was sent to a sample of 2,869 UK based senior leaders in SMEs between 4th-12th March 2020.

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