“One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” — Miss Brodie, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by British novelist Muriel Spark
Three women are killed in a car crash on the way home from a weekend excursion. Their souls are immediately whisked off to heaven for an orientation session. Each one was asked, “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning your death, what would you like to hear them say about you?” The first woman said, “I’d like to hear them say that I was a great entrepreneur and a terrific mother.” The second woman responded, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful wife and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow.” The last woman replied, “I would love to hear them say…LOOK, SHE’S MOVING!!!!!”
A powerful way to uncover or strengthen our sense of purpose is to think through what we’d like to be able to say our life stood for when it’s all over. The answer to that question reflects our values and focuses our vision for whatever years we do have left. Mohammed believed “a man’s true wealth hereafter, is the good he does in this world to his fellow man. When he dies, people will say, ‘What property has he left behind him?’ but the angels will ask, ‘What good deeds has he sent before him?’.”
One of my favorite annual Christmas season rituals is to watch the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring a young Jimmy Stewart. It’s a 1930s classic that tells a very compelling story about making a difference in the lives of many others. Years ago, I first rented the video after reading that a judge ordered someone who had tried to commit suicide to watch the movie. In the movie, Jimmy’s character, George Bailey, becomes a reluctant leader in his small hometown of Bedford Falls. Engulfed in a personal financial crisis by the evil business tycoon, Mr. Potter, George prepares to jump off a bridge so his family can collect on his life insurance policy. Then, Clarence, George’s guardian angel drops in. Clarence shows George what life would have been like in Bedford Falls (without him it became Potterville) if George got his wish and he had never been born. The town and the many lives George touched (and even saved) so positively are much poorer because George was never there. In true movie fashion, George joyfully returns to his real life, and grateful friends and family resolve the financial crisis.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” raises important questions. What voids have I filled? Who’s lives have I touched? Who have I yet to touch? What bad things would have happened if I were not here? What would I want the key players in my life to say my life stood for or the difference I made? Who would those key players be? What have our lives made visible to others that without us would not have been seen?
Purpose is the third key element of Focus and Context. It is tightly intertwined with the other two — Values and Vision. When these three strands are braided together, it’s hard to argue that any one of the three is more important than the other. All three work together to provide the texture and focal point of our lives, our teams, and our organizations. The stronger our sense of purpose or mission, the stronger our energy, passion, and commitment. Many people who’ve studied or thought deeply about what makes strong leaders have come to the same conclusion as Benjamin Disraeli when he wrote, “I have brought myself, by long meditation, to the conviction that a human being with a settled purpose must accomplish it, and that nothing can resist a will which will stake even existence upon its fulfillment.”