Recently, a friend told me about his struggle to become a purpose-driven leader. When he started his company, he said, he’d had every intention of building a business based on service, one that transcended the typical profit-seeking benchmarks of success. At first, he was inspired by his mission and assumed that, when people saw what he was trying to accomplish, they would rally behind him in support.
Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. People—including his own employees—complained of the way he was running things and accused him of being selfish by not putting their needs first. He began to view his task as thankless and, out of frustration, eventually decided to look out for himself instead, focusing on money and power rather than his original goals. He didn’t like the idea of abandoning his principles, but he didn’t feel he had much of a choice given the pressure he felt to conform.
I was disheartened to hear this, but not surprised. In fact, this is not uncommon in the business world: Entrepreneurs enter it thinking they’re going to change the world for the better, then end up bowing to the pressure to adapt to the status quo and measure their success against the traditional scorecard of money. “This happens to every entrepreneur at some point,” I told my friend. “You just have to rise above the bar. You have to set the bar higher for yourself.”
Lots of people say they want be purpose-driven leaders. Far fewer of those people want to actually do the work involved in that endeavor regardless of how much—or more likely how little—they’re appreciated or recognized for it. Valuing purpose over profit means you run the risk of being taken advantage of by people with greedier motives. This is understandably difficult for a founder who has already sacrificed a lot and expended a great emotional effort to start his or her business. But, I told my friend, “You have to power through that challenge and realize your life is going to be better if you’re living a life of service and measuring your success based on what you truly value, not what society tells you to value. Part of service is sacrifice, which means you can’t rely on validation from other people to feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You just have to trust that you’ve made the right choice.”
And that, ultimately, is what it comes down to: a choice. In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In everything we do, we are given a choice, but making the right choice requires thought and energy and an assumption of responsibility. Making choices is hard. In fact, research has shown that the more choices we are forced to make in a given amount of time, the more our judgment and ability to think critically is impaired. To protect against this fatigue, we so often resort to the easiest or default choice. Often, we don’t even realize we’re making a choice at all. We may even say we had no choice when in fact we always do.
When my friend decided to turn away from his true purpose, he made a choice but justified it by saying he didn’t really have a choice at all. By being reminded that he did, indeed, always have the ability to make his own choices and that—especially in this case—those choices matter, he became newly empowered to create the business he’d originally set out to create. Our choices are better when they are conscious, when we see them for what they actually are. When forced to carefully consider our choices, most of us will make a pretty good choice; it’s when we abdicate our responsibility to ourselves and those around us and deny our own autonomy that we do things we would not otherwise choose to do.
I don’t know why so many people criticized my friend—and others like him—for choosing to live by their values and integrity. My best guess is that they feel insecure in their own choices and, when we illuminate alternate paths they could have taken, they get angry and defensive. By challenging their choices, we are challenging their very existence—their self-esteem, their lives, their values—and forcing them to reconsider. This is extraordinarily uncomfortable, and so they lash out.
Part of the problem is that, as a society, we have collectively come to equate money and power with success. If you want other people to consider you successful, therefore, you must choose to play by these metrics. Since we are social animals, it’s easier to simply play along than to choose to go rogue and measure success differently. But I think that, as time goes on, more and more of us are starting to see the limits to the money and power definition of success. We are beginning to realize that we, as individuals and as members of a community, are more successful if we allow for creativity and creation and cooperation instead of greed. And the more each and every one of us makes the conscious choice to measure their success this way, the quicker we will be able to thrive.