I vividly remember the first time I experienced a profound, conscious sense of purpose. I was sitting in our plush university management school during the second year of studying for my business degree when I heard the (then little-known) term ‘corporate social responsibility’. In that moment I felt a jolt of electricity surge through me and thought, “WOW! Business really can help the world!
I visualised little green shoots growing up out of my textbook – little green shoots of purpose. It felt pure, important and fundamentally meaningful. I know that some of my course mates felt the same but I also wonder how many people slammed the book shut and ignored that feeling in pursuit of a much-coveted graduate scheme.
That little WOW moment stayed with me and, as I decided what I wanted to do in the world, those shoots grew into a plant, maybe even a tree – a deeply rooted sense of what I’m all about as a leader and the impact I want to have. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to grow a purpose-driven company and work with some amazing, forward-thinking, purpose-driven business leaders. So I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned.
A misunderstanding about purpose
I’ve noticed that many of us either don’t think about purpose at all or get confused about what it is. Unless we’re explicitly ‘into’ purpose, we may look at it in a ‘little p’ sort of way; the functional, tactical type of purpose that is, in fact, simply a goal.
‘Little p’ purpose is often characterised by what’s known as ‘mimetic desire’ – in other words, “I want it because you want it.” This is easy to recognise if you have children. One minute everyone’s happy, then suddenly everyone wants the same toy all at the same time. “Mummy, he’s got MY CAR!”… sound familiar?
We need to ask ourselves how many of the things we’re trying to achieve in our work and life are because of mimetic desire. When we take away the fact that other people crave it, do we really want that car? That house? That promotion? Do we really want to smash the competition? Or bust that quarterly target? Or do we want it because someone else has told us it’s important?
We can spot ‘little p’ tendencies in language such as:
“I need to get that job…”
“We must achieve our target…”
“I need to keep my security…”
“We must win the contract…”
“I have to fix the problem…”
Even if it’s unintentional, ‘little p’ stuff is often about what we want for ourselves or what will make us look good. It’s not coming from a place of true service.
When ‘little p’ takes over
Don’t get me wrong – every organisation needs clarity on its goals, but what might an organisation look like if it’s driven by ‘little p’ and little else? It might show up as excessive focus on performance, numbers and market share or a ‘how are we doing?’ mindset which, if taken to the extreme, can lead to poor, non-values-based decision-making. It might look like an unsustainable work culture, where people and company interact in a transactional way. And we may see costs such as mental health and environmental sustainability being externalised, e.g. attitudes such as: “Not my problem, I’m just maximising profit to shareholders,” or staff being signed off on stress-related sick leave. It’s rather like a predator that has to go in for the next kill, even at the risk of trampling its young.
Over time, a leadership team in a ‘little p’ bubble can, in pursuit of the next goal, convince themselves that their actions are more ethical than they really are. As we focus on what we’re trying to achieve, we easily miss the wider context the goal sits within. We assume we’re good people, just doing what we’re supposed to do, but over time our tiny actions can stack up with unintended consequences that damage people and systems around us.
This is what Simon Sinek calls ‘ethical fading’.
The unintended consequences of ‘little p’ thinking
There have been recent examples that illustrate this type of ethical fading. At US aircraft manufacturer Boeing, employees knew that pilots were being fast-tracked in simulators to fly the 737 Max aircraft. When two of these aircraft crashed, killing 346 people, the fleet was grounded. Investigators subsequently uncovered damaging messages written by employees in which they joked about the aircraft’s flaws and mocked federal rules.
The company was eventually charged with fraud and conspiracy and fined $2.5bn, with the US Justice Department declaring that “Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candour”. How could this happen? Well, there’s no simple answer but it looks as if Boeing created a system where achieving a ‘little p’ goal was more important than the bigger picture of passenger safety.
Closer to home, a cladding company “over-engineered” a fire safety test to achieve a pass for its highly combustible insulation panels, which went on to fuel the fire at London’s Grenfell Tower that killed 72 people; and last year, Southern Water received a record fine of £90m for pumping raw sewage into the sea.
These might seem like extreme examples but remember that our world is built on tiny, daily actions. If those actions are purely self-serving and ‘little p’ profit-driven, what kind of world are we creating?
The case for ‘big P’ Purpose
When we stop chasing what we think everyone else wants, we can slow down, look at the full context of people, planet, profit and beyond and move towards a higher purpose. This is what I call ‘big P’ Purpose.
We might start to spot this when a different kind of language and emphasis emerges. Critically, when we live in our ‘little p’ purpose all of the time, we become human doings; but when we focus on a higher purpose, we become human beings.
I believe that ‘big P’ Purpose has the following characteristics:
- It’s beyond personal: it’s bigger than you alone – whether ‘you’ is you personally, you as a team or you as an organisation. It matters more than you – you’d even risk your life for it.
- It doesn’t waver: it stretches beyond this role and this job at this point in time; it can travel with you and there are many ways in which you can live it. This means it’s not functional; it’s integral to who you are – it’s an anchor, or your magnetic north.
- It fills you up: it feels energising and inspiring; it resources and invigorates you. This is the true definition of a strength: something that revitalises you rather than just being something you’re good at.
We need more leaders who are led not just by ‘little p’ purpose (again, it is needed, but not exclusively) but by ‘big P’ purpose. Such leaders make better decisions and help to contribute to a sustainable workplace and an attractive ecosystem where others can bring their talents and use them for shared benefit. Employees in such an ecosystem are more committed, more resilient and more motivated.
On a practical level, clarity on ‘big P’ Purpose is also the best tool I know for identifying which items on the to-do list deserve to be there. It helps us to know which actions are just busy work, bureaucracy or ego trips, versus which will help us achieve what’s really important.
How to start with Purpose
Purpose cannot be imposed from the top down; it needs to be lived at all levels of an organisation. A glossy, C-suite-led purpose statement might represent the corporate Purpose but it’s only a galvanising force when a team member feels it too.
My personal Purpose simply cannot be to make your company succeed. But it might be, like Sainsbury’s discovered during the pandemic, to ‘help feed the nation’. Or, like Leeds Building Society, I too might passionately wish ‘to help people save money and to buy their own home’.
Purpose is an exciting form of leadership that can operate at any level of an organisation. It can (and does) go up, down and all the way round an organisation.
Whatever our function within an organisation, we can be Purpose-driven leaders and reap the benefits of a Purpose-driven ecosystem. This starts with us investigating our own ‘big P’ Purpose and encouraging others to do the same.
Do you know what yours is?
Let me start, and encourage you to share your ‘big P’ Purpose in turn. It’s an iterative process but over time I’ve discovered that, rather like an oak tree, my practice as a leader is to help myself and others grow tall and deepen our roots, to settle deeply into ourselves so that we can act in service of others. And the more I articulate that, the more I’m able to ask myself, “To what extent am I doing that today?” and, “Do all the things on the ‘little p’ list really need to happen?” I find that I need to keep repeating my Purpose out loud so that it’s inhabited and alive, otherwise my leaves start to wilt and I feel as if I’m just a machine trying to Get Stuff Done.
What I’ve come to realise is that, whether your ‘big P’ Purpose is a seed that’s yet to germinate, a few little green shoots or a mighty oak tree – it needs to be nourished, nurtured and strengthened each and every day.
The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).