I wrote this story for the Purpose chapter in Pathways to Performance:

Two workers were digging a trench and laying cable. A neighborhood boy came by on his bike to inspect the work. He asked one of the workers what he was doing. The worker replied, “I’m laying a new combination phone and fiber cable for this neighborhood.” Another boy wandered up later and asked the other worker what she was doing. She paused, then said proudly, “I am helping to build our country’s information highway to the 21st Century.”


That book was published in the mid-nineties at the beginning stages of the internet. That “information highway” has since redefined our world. It’s become an essential service.

The story tried to illustrate the difference between just a job or a deeper purpose. As Henry J. Golding said, “What our deepest self craves is not mere enjoyment, but some supreme purpose that will enlist all our powers and will give unity and direction to our life. We can never know the profoundest joy without a conviction that our life is significant ‑‑ not a meaningless episode.”

But the big leadership challenge is finding and bringing purpose to life. In his editorial, “Making Purpose Real,” Harvard Business Review, editor, Adi Ignatius, writes, “Too often, discussions of managing with ‘purpose’ can be frustratingly vague. What exactly is purpose? It sounds great in an annual report, but how do leaders actually use it, day by day, to make difficult trade-offs, engage customers, energize employees, and attract investors?”

I especially resonate with what Ignatius says is HBR’s purpose, “to rid the world of bad management.” That’s a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) I’ve pursued most of my career!

Ranjay Gulati’s new book, Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies, brings a fresh perspective to this core leadership and culture development topic. He writes, “Many leaders pursue purpose superficially because they don’t fully understand how devotion to a purpose enhances business performance. Deep purpose leaders grasp more acutely the mechanisms by which purpose galvanizes organizations and generates outsized performance. They point to four distinct categories of benefits: the ability of purpose to help focus strategy-making, foster relationships with customers, engage with external stakeholders, and inspire employees.”

The book’s “Epilogue: Getting Started with Deep Purpose” is brimming with practical advice providing how-to steps for implementing each of the book’s chapters. These short sections especially stood out from the dozens he provides:

  • Challenge your purpose statement and embrace a new understanding of purpose
  • Lean into and communicate your trade-offs
  • Let purpose drive your strategy and operations
  • Translate purpose into your recruiting and onboarding efforts
  • Assess your branding alignment with your purpose
  • Stress-test your purpose with discussions on responding during crisis
  • Connect the past and future
  • Train people in principled decision-making
  • Live your purpose in everything you do
  • Make work personal and invite everyone to probe their own personal purposes
  • Connect personal and organizational purpose
  • Give more autonomy within clear boundaries
  • Coordinate collaboration and cooperation
  • Inject purpose into your succession planning
  • Develop purpose-related metrics

During a culture development session, a hospital CEO regretfully reflected on how he was asked by their chairman why he was always out of his office and no longer available to take calls from the chairman. The CEO was feeling guilty about that. He was off leading another Focus and Context discussion with a group going through a training program. He was getting increasingly frustrated that all those group discussions and meetings with hospital staff weren’t allowing him “to get his job done.”

As we talked about culture change, people leadership, vision, values, and purpose, he had an “aha” moment. He came to realize “caring for the context” was his job. After that, the board was educated on what the senior team was trying to do. The CEO talked to the chairman about how much more frequently he would now be out of his office. The CEO’s redefinition of his role from operational manager to purposeful leader, has been one of the key factors in the strong success this hospital had in shifting its culture.