Raise your hand if your organization has a mission statement. When I do that survey during leadership/culture presentations, almost every hand goes up. Mission statements are as common as a logo, website, or budget. Everybody has one.
- Define the soul of your organization?
- Energize and engage?
- Align with leaders’ and employees’ personal purpose?
- Unite your past and future?
- Anchor hiring, promotion, and firing decisions?
- Drive your strategy and priorities?
Many mission statements sound like they were written by bureaucrats and lawyers. Others are catchy branding slogans written by marketing. In either case, they’re superficial and meaningless. Cue the eye rolls and snickers.
This month’s issue of Harvard Business Review features a Spotlight section on “Making Purpose Real.” The first article poses a vital question in its title; “What the Purpose of your Purpose?” Great question. Purpose is one of three yin/yang questions at the heart of Focus and Context; Why Do We Exist (our reason for being, mission, or purpose)?
Another article in the series is written by Ranjay Gulati, a business professor at Harvard Business School. Gulati spent two years extensively researching and writing his new book, Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies. He writes, “these companies weren’t simply aiming to ‘win’ in conventional terms. They were on a sacred mission and had a sizzling energy about them, one that transcended mundane description and was grounded in both a sense of their interconnection with the wider world and a vision of a better future they sought to realize. Deep purpose leaders reached for religious or spiritual language to describe this energy, associating the purpose with words like ‘soul,’ ‘soulfulness,’ and ‘spirit.'”
Spirit and meaning are missing in too many teams and organizations. At the same time, lots of us are joining the growing ranks of meaning-seekers. This disconnect is a major factor behind The Great Resignation coming out of the COVID pandemic. We want to know that our work and our lives count for something. We want to make a difference. Our work and our lives become ever more meaningful the more they are in harmony with who we are and touch the very core of why we exist.
In Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit, organization consultants and professors, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal (co-author of the classic Corporate Cultures — the 1982 book that popularized the idea of organization culture) conclude, “The signs point toward spirit and soul as the essence of leadership.”
In going about their busyness — especially during times of crisis — organizations too easily lose their heart and soul. Without realizing it or ever intending to, organizations can lose their deeper sense of meaning. Goals, plans, reports, and numbers take over. In the harsh glare of hard-headed analysis, soft “touchy, feely” emotions like spirit and meaning evaporate as dew in the morning sun.
If you had to do without your heart or without your lungs, which would you choose? Dumb question. We need both to live. Likewise, is your company pursuing profits or purpose?
I’ve written quite a bit about the Purpose-Profit Paradox; purposeful companies without profits can’t live to do their good work. Profitable companies without purpose live, but they seldom thrive — especially in today’s world. A February 25, 2022, Globe & Mail article, “Balancing Profit with Purpose,” reports on a seismic shift, “a global Zeno Group ‘Strength of Purpose’ study from 2020 says consumers are four to six times more likely to buy from, trust, champion and defend companies with a strong purpose.”
BlackRock is the largest money-management firm in the world with more than US$10 trillion in assets under management. In his 2021 letter to CEOs, Chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, wrote, “The more your company can show its purpose in delivering value to its customers, its employees, and its communities, the better able you will be to compete and deliver long-term, durable profits for shareholders. As the evidence increasingly shows, a purpose encompassing multiple stakeholders yields stronger financial performance.”
In the March 10, 2022, Globe and Mail article, entitled, “Companies’ swift action on Ukraine suggests the days of corporate indifference are over,” Andre Pratte, chair of the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, said, “Companies that have invested considerable amounts of time, energy and money in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives wonder how becoming ‘purposeful’ is different. It is very different. Companies often do CSR and ESG on the side as an afterthought to their operations. ‘Purpose’ is embedded in operations. It implies tough decisions, balancing the interests of the business’s stakeholders.”
So how about that mission statement? Is it a yawner? Or is it snappy — with empty words? Or is purpose at the core of your being? Are you leading on purpose?