8 Principles of Purpose-Driven Leadership

UPDATED: November 9, 2017
PUBLISHED: November 9, 2017

“Moving Upstairs” to Our Purpose

Jack Hawley writes in Reawakening the Spirit in Work, “Our life direction is about moving into the vacant upstairs flat.” Purpose is that home within, that place where our talents, values and service-drive reside. It’s there all the time, waiting for our arrival. We may have been too busy “living our life downstairs” to even notice.

A few years ago, I worked with an executive who had recently realized that she had been “living downstairs.” She entered my office in a down mood, and after very little chitchat, she blurted out, “Cake mixes don’t give any meaning to my life!” Caught off guard, I started laughing. She wasn’t amused, and said, “I’m serious. I used to love my job, but it just doesn’t seem important to me anymore.” After I worked with her for a while, she began to explore the contents of her “upstairs flat.” Her discovery centered on “using her innovative and conceptual gifts to enrich and to nourish people’s lives.” She had been “living downstairs” for so long that she actually thought that cake mixes were supposed to give meaning to her life! Her purpose became overshadowed by her day-to-day focus. When she finally uncovered her purpose—to enrich and to nourish others through innovation—her attitude about her job changed, her creativity returned and her performance soared. Her life wasn’t about cake mixes; it was about being a creative force to enhance people’s lives. This realization permeated her entire life situation, and nearly everyone in her life sensed her renewal.

Related: 4 Ways to Find Passion and Purpose in Your Life

Purpose Is Bigger and Deeper Than Our Goals

How often have you heard someone say about extraordinary people, “He was born to do this. She was born to do that.” It is as if the “thing” was their only goal, their only reason for being.

What happens when the “thing” is done or the career is over? Does that mean the person no longer has a purpose? Are these people then expendable from life? Purpose is the natural flow of our gifts as they serve those we touch. Sometimes we may inhibit or ignore this flow, but it is always there, seeking expression. How it manifests depends on our ability to open up to it and the particular circumstances we may be facing at the time. Purpose is constant; the manifestation of purpose is always changing to serve the situation.

I once had a client who asked me, “How can I tell the difference between obsessively driven behavior and purposefully driven behavior? It is difficult to tell them apart sometimes.” Purpose releases energy. The higher the purpose, the greater the energy. Purpose also frees us. The more profound the purpose, the greater the sense of freedom. Purpose opens up possibilities. Obsession drains our energy and binds us to the activity itself. Less joy, less energy and less freedom are the results. When observing the passionate, focused behavior of people, it can sometimes be difficult to know if they were being passionately obsessive or passionately purposeful. If the behavior is adding energy, joy and fulfillment to them and others, then it is probably coming from a purposeful place. In Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi’s words:

Flow lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals. When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.”

Bridging Individual and Organization Purpose

In 2014, Baxter decided to spin off its BioScience division into a new public company. They called it Baxalta, and Ludwig Hantson, now CEO of Alexion, was Baxalta’s CEO at the time. Ludwig was determined to rapidly develop innovative products supported by an innovative culture. This was no easy task. Fortunately, Ludwig thoroughly understood the huge downside of allowing performance to be the purpose of the organization. He partnered with Korn Ferry and me to foster “Purpose-Driven Leadership” for the top 200 leaders at Baxalta.

Commenting on this purpose accelerator, Ludwig asserted, “Baxalta’s purpose-driven performance was a key driver in significantly increasing market cap by $10 billion in a 12-month period. Helping people to tackle their leadership challenges with substantially enhanced self-awareness, shared purpose and shared inspiration was invaluable in supporting our strategic and cultural transformation.” Purpose powers performance.

Related: 4 Ways Purpose Drives Performance

Anne-Marie Law, CHRO of Baxalta at the time and now CHRO of Alexion, added this perspective: “Rarely in my career have I seen so many people so deeply touched and committed to contributing to shared meaning and purpose. Helping people connect to their individual and collective purpose multiplies cultural and financial value. Being involved in this process was clearly one of the most impactful in my career. It produced tangible financial value through inspired performance.”

A while ago, I had the great fortune to be invited to NASA to give a keynote speech. Honestly, I was particularly excited because their offer included a personal tour of the Goddard Space Flight Center, where components of the new Webb Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, were being assembled. The tour and the experience of being there was amazing. But to my surprise, I was most inspired by the interviews I conducted with many of the scientists and leaders at NASA in preparation for the keynote. I wanted to get a sense of their world and their meaning mindset. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question: “What is the purpose of your work?” Person after person responded with generally the same purpose-inspired vision: “We explore the universe to improve lives on our planet.” It was both astonishing and uplifting to hear the precise alignment of their skill, capabilities and values encapsulated in this passionate, larger-than-us-all aspiration. Their clarity of purpose inspires a pause to reflect: How can each of us better contribute our talents to serve a larger purpose?

Infusing Life With Purpose

It’s not so surprising to see people come to their feet to applaud the retirement of a senior executive. Half may be sad to see that person leaving, and the other half may be happy, so everyone stands. More unusual is a standing ovation triggered by the announcement of a new person stepping into a leadership role.

Novartis Consumer was struggling with manufacturing issues. The business was in steep decline, and there had been three leaders in a three-year period. They wanted to find the right leader to bring together and optimize its leadership talent and business model. Novartis decided to place their trust in one of their own, Brian McNamara. As a general manager running a key region, Brian had established a clear leadership brand, and he was loved for it. He had spent his career and his life building relationships, teams and cultures. He knew how to do turnarounds by engaging people first and then inspiring them to exceed expectations. Upon the announcement of Brian’s new role as Divisional CEO, there was a spontaneous, collective release, a feeling of “It’s about time our guy was selected!” This pent-up feeling exploded into a rollicking, screaming, whistling standing ovation. It was stunning!

So why do people feel such respect and appreciation for Brian and his leadership? Simple: Brian cares, and he gets results. Everyone knows it. He cares about you, and he cares about making a difference together. He builds trust by connecting genuinely with humor and empathy, and he inspires a deep confidence that emboldens people to take on tough challenges. Brian takes extra moments to be present and coach people.

In working with Brian, who is now CEO of GSK Consumer—a joint venture with Novartis—we did some deep exploration of his core purpose. Examining the peaks and valleys of his life, we found an overarching theme present when Brian is at his best: infusing life in people. Brian is utterly committed to infusing life in his family, friends, teams, customers, products, and his own health and fitness. Commenting on his purpose, Brian reflected, “As long as I am ‘all-in’… infusing life, my life is good and meaningful. Shared energy is high, and contributions are optimal. Infusing life is the one thing that I have to do; everything else is secondary.”

Orbiting Around Core Purpose

You may think I have this “purpose thing” all figured out. Actually, the only thing I know for sure is that it is a critically important, endless journey of exploration. While the core may be a constant, ever-present reality throughout life, our clarity increases over time as we heighten our awareness and dedicate ourselves to discovering it. It is a bit like orbiting around a hazy planet and slowly focusing the image.

This focusing process is expedited by engaging in a journey to answer two critical questions:

  • What is so important to me that I am endlessly fascinated by it?
  • When I am at my best and creating value for others, what am I bringing to make this happen?

Related: If You’re Searching for Purpose, Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

In my case, I have always held a compelling interest in human growth—how it happens, why it happens, the psychology of it, the history of it and the future of it. I think of this fascination with human growth as the gravitational core that I revolve around. To me, it is vitally important and endlessly engaging. It is my core value, the thing I am willing to dedicate my life to.

Over time, I have been fortunate to develop some core talents to serve this core value of human growth. When these core talents are showing up and serving transformative growth, good things happen. When I am at my best, these core talents are creativity and inspiration.

When we dedicate ourselves to clarifying our core purpose, it will slowly emerge. Sometimes, in a quiet moment, an insight will come. Other times, on a walk with a friend, you will feel its presence. Its energetic vitality might be revealed while you are working or involved in a special interest. Glimpses will come at home or maybe while on vacation. Sometimes, the most powerful moments will break through when we least expect it. But when that clear insight comes, it is like a ball of yarn that gets thrown across our life, and the thread connects all our significant life experiences.

When it came into focus for me, I realized that whether I was seeking my education in psychology, teaching people to meditate, being an executive coach, building our consulting practice, writing books, giving keynote speeches or being in family life, it was really only about one thing for me: bringing forth creativity and inspiration to foster transcendent growth. That was it—my reason for being, how my gifts could serve and touch others.

6,000 Days

While leading a team-building session in Europe to help foster a more purpose-driven culture in a global company, the CEO had arranged for the group to visit a nearby Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The group was a bit reluctant, but the monk was very gracious. He greeted us, seated us in the meditation hall and immediately engaged us in a provocative conversation. Although I’ve been fortunate to learn from many great teachers, I was unprepared when he singled me out at the very beginning of the discourse and asked me, “Tell me, how many days do you have left to live?”

I was stunned by the profound question, but surprisingly the answer flashed in my mind. “Six thousand days,” I responded.

The monk reflected, and slowly replied, “That sounds about right. So, if you have 6,000 days, do you want to waste any of them? Do you want to waste any of those days in frustration, anger or not living your purpose?” The power, depth and personal relevance of his existential question simultaneously disturbed me and inspired me into a reflective state of mind. He “forced” me to wrestle with it. It reminded me how one powerful question can change our lives… and how precious and purpose-filled every moment of life is.

Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, shared with me his own insightful story about the significance of using our time for greatest impact. As a young cadet at West Point, Alex sat in the audience with his classmates during their orientation while the Dean of Academic Affairs addressed the entire corps. He told the first-year cadets, “Some of you will succeed. Some will fail. What will make the difference is how you use your ‘scraps of time.’”

By reminding ourselves of the limited amount of time we really have, a positive tension arises and urges us to do something significant, something grounded in service. The monk’s challenging question followed me for days and circulates within me still, as does the dean’s admonition. Both remind me not to waste a day… on-purpose.

Take a little time now to ask yourself the same question the wise monk asked me: “How many days do you have left to live?” Really calculate it—come up with a number. Now, ask yourself, Knowing the limited number of days I have, what do I want to do? How do I want to be? What is your purpose-fueled vision for how you are going to lead and live those days?

Purpose mastery frames all our life and career experiences as part of a meaningful whole. When we understand purpose, all the challenging experiences of our lives serve to forge identity, character and meaning. Although life may be challenging, every experience becomes our teacher, every challenge an opportunity through which we learn and live more purposefully. When we lack purpose, immediate circumstances dominate our awareness and overshadow our reason for being; life tends to lose connection with its true nature. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Purpose is spirit-seeking expression; awareness of it allows us to see our lives more clearly from the inside out.

You may be thinking that all this seems a bit esoteric. However, core purpose may be one of the most practical, useful ways to lead and live transformatively. It converts average performing organizations, teams, families and relationships into highly spirited, effective ones. It transforms employees, team members, spouses or friends into partners. With purpose, managers become leaders. With purpose, we not only become leaders of organizations, we become leaders of life.

Related: 5 Rules to Win the Game of Life 

8 Principles of Purpose Mastery

Keep the following principles in mind as you begin to master leading on purpose:

1. Get in touch with what is important to you.

Understanding our values, what gives meaning to our lives, gives us the “GPS coordinates” of our purpose.

If you have trouble identifying what is really important to you, pay attention to what energizes and excites you, what expands your boundaries and brings you happiness. At various points in your life, you will face a vague sense that there must be something more, some deeper meaning. You may want to dive deep into your experiences during these times to uncover your purpose-seeking expression. At these moments, your purpose may be calling, but your lack of listening creates the vagueness.

2. Act “on purpose.”

Most people have an intuitive feeling about their purpose in life. Turning this hazy intuition into a clear, tangible commitment helps turn a dream into a reality. David Prosser, retired chairman of RTW, shared with me, “When your commitments are aligned with your purpose, then great things will happen.” Committing yourself to pursuing your purpose will marshal energies and potentialities within that you did not know you had. David Whyte shares, “Take any step toward our destiny through creative action… the universe turns toward us, realizing we are there, alive and about to make our mark.”

3. Find team core purpose.

While personal purpose is transformative for leaders, team purpose is powerful for the entire enterprise. Once you get clear on how your gifts make a difference, consider engaging your team around a similar exercise. When a team’s purpose supports the organization’s mission and strategy, great things happen. What is your team’s core purpose? What are the distinguishing differences your group has? What is the big impact, big service or big difference that you are going to collectively achieve? Why does this team exist? Imagine a team of leaders clear on both their individual purpose and their collective purpose. Sound like a great place to be? This could be your team. Connect your individual purpose to the broader mission, and tremendous energy and engagement will be unleashed.

Stuart Parker, CEO of USAA, found a way to make the intersection of personal and organizational purpose very clear. Stuart had personal challenge coins made, similar to those used by military leaders to recognize excellence in members of their command. One side is engraved with Stuart’s personal purpose—“Mission, Trust, Freedom”—along with pilot wings he wore during his career in the United States Air Force. On the flip side are the USAA eagle and the company’s values: “Service, Loyalty, Honesty, Integrity.” He wanted to convey a powerful reflection: How can your purpose serve our collective mission? Find pragmatic ways to make personal and team purpose tangible and at the forefront of daily work.

4. Do not mistake the path for the goal.

Be careful not to simply adopt other people’s views of your purpose. Too often, people internalize the latest personal development trend, spiritual teaching or management guru theory into a dogmatic, inflexible, restrictive practice. This is mistaking the path for the goal. Finding your purpose is finding how your gifts can serve, not just adopting someone else’s value systems. Personal development programs, religious systems and great teachers are the guides, the techniques—not the goal. Be careful with programs or systems that impose beliefs onto you, thereby creating dependency and externalization of the real you. If the process values your uniqueness, individuality and personal path, it may be helpful. Always remind yourself that the program or practice, no matter how stimulating or fulfilling, is the methodology—not the goal. The essence of purpose mastery is the very personal process of discovering how your gifts can serve something bigger.

5. Focus on service.

Purpose is not purposeful without serving others. It is not self-expression for its own sake; it is self-expression that creates value for those around you. Therefore, key into your gifts, but don’t stop there. Focus on expressing your gifts to improve the lives of everyone and everything you touch.

6. Be purposeful in all domains.

Too often we might be purposeful in one domain of our life but not in another. We may be purposeful at work and not so much at home, or we may be purposeful in personal relationships but not in our work. Once you clarify how your gifts can make a difference, examine the degree to which you are being purposeful in all parts of your life. Seeing these purpose gaps can reveal our real growth challenges. Too many leaders have lost their sense of purpose because they were not using their gifts in their personal lives or were not fully expressing their deepest personal values in their work. Congruence of purpose in all domains of our life is the aspiration of purpose mastery.

7. Learn from “failure.”

Failure is a subjective label we apply to unintended or unexpected experiences. Usually, we are unwilling or unable to integrate these experiences into a meaningful context. From the vantage point of purpose mastery, failure does not exist. It is life attempting to teach us some new lessons or trying to point us toward some new directions. As Warren Bennis wrote in On Becoming a Leader, “Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies.” But we have to be open as we “trip.” The next time you are experiencing something you didn’t intend or expect, ask yourself, What can I learn from this? When we are living life on purpose, every life experience helps us decode the hieroglyphics of meaning. In the words of Emerson, “The world becomes a glass dictionary.”

8. Be flexible.

Genuine insight into our purpose can take the form of a recurring theme that connects divergent spheres of our lives. Like an orchestra interpreting a symphony, the expression of our purpose will change. For instance, someone’s real purpose in life may be to guide and nurture others. At different stages of the life cycle, this will be expressed very differently—as a student, parent, professional and retiree. We need to be flexible, open to the process of expressing our internal sense of purpose in many different roles and life circumstances. Transactive managers follow set procedures in a consistent, predictable manner; transformative leaders flex to a myriad of conditions, gracefully dancing around a purpose-filled core.

Related: Answer 6 Questions to Reveal Your Life Purpose




Excerpted from Leadership From the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Third Edition by Kevin Cashman. Reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.