The Importance of Purpose

In many of our leadership workshops, we talk about the importance of purpose. Intellectually, leaders understand this. But when we invite them spontaneously to explain briefly, passionately and persuasively what their team's purpose is... it seems to be a real challenge.

Here's my observation (and you can quote me): Without real purpose, it is impossible to prioritise.

If priority means "something that is more important than other things and needs to be dealt with first" then what criteria could you use, if you aren't really clear about your purpose?

Defining purpose is important. No, it is more than that, it is vital.

Of course, like 33 million others, you've probably watched Simon Sinek's TED Talk about the Golden Circle. This is, I say intentionally, a good place to start.

Simon says: "Every single person, every single organization knows what they do. Some know how they do it. But very few people know why they do what they do. And by why I don't mean 'to make a profit.' That's a result. By why, I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?"

We have taken thousands of leaders, across four continents, through a process which helps establish clarity of purpose. It is a privilege to be present when this clearness is achieved. It is a moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. And you know it will make a difference to the team's day-to-day decisions.

Through these experiences, I have learned probably much more than I have taught. One thing has become clear to me - and that is: Purpose is always about people

Even if your team manufactures equipment, designs products or codes software, the purpose is always to bless people's lives. And if it isn't, you shouldn't be doing it!

This lesson came powerfully during a session we were running in ITV's Southbank studios some years ago. A charity CEO was struggling to explain the purpose of her organization. The more she spoke, the less we cared. That may sound harsh but the greater number of facts and figures she threw into the description, the less connected we felt. Having already run through the Golden Circle, we were still not making progress. In frustration, we called a break and let other delegates take some time out.

Sitting next to the CEO, I asked if she could think of just one person who had benefited from the charity's work. The rules I explained were that she needed to have met them face-to-face, know them by name and have been touched by their personal story.

An interesting thing happened: I knew when she had thought of a real person before she spoke - because her whole countenance changed. Nerves were replaced with quiet confidence.

This is the story, in less than 30 seconds: Mr Philpott's wife went into hospital for a routine operation but was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He had to give up work to care for her and their three young children. As a result, they lost their mortgaged home and possessions. They were socially re-housed. But the charity was able to give the family the furniture and clothing to turn that house into a home, at no cost.

Do you immediately get the purpose of the charity? Do you feel the importance of the work that they do? I know that when I heard this unpolished story, I wanted to know how to support the cause.

I promise you that this does not only apply to charities! If you're in a corporate, public sector, sports club or any other sort of organisation, big or small... When you can think of a real person whose life is affected positively by the work you do, your purpose will be easier to define, remember and communicate to other people. You won't need to memorise a script, you will carry the purpose in your heart. Jargon will naturally fall away. Motivation will be easier to maintain. When you stay connected to this purpose, you will not forget the impact and importance of your work. Cynicism can crawl back to its lonely corner, as you inspire your team by connecting to their core need for meaning.

So, in summary:

  1. 1. Purpose is always about people; and
  2. 2. Without real purpose, it is impossible to prioritise.
Can you articulate your team's purpose?


Co-founder of training firm, Mission International Ltd, Justin is a sought after coach, teacher and trainer. Justin delivers interactive workshops globally for corporate and not-for-profit organizations. This includes team development, leadership and communications training for Europe's best business school, HEC Paris, Invesco and VMware.

He has collaborated on significant published research in the field of human systems. Justin counsels with senior executives at organizations including the ...

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