The Greatest Gift from a Leader; a Sense of Purpose

It is my observation that nothing creates happiness in a person more than a sense of purpose. Yet, for most of us, it is elusive. I have, as I am sure most of us do, many friends, family and colleagues who are still in search of a sense of purpose.

Purpose allows us to focus. It makes decision making easier by providing criteria to make decisions. To quote Lewis Caroll: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”.

Purpose similarly makes it easier for us to understand and communicate what we want. It allows us to set boundaries around our own behaviour and what we will accept and not accept as behaviours from others.

Purpose therefore allows us to be more assertive and less likely to be passive or aggressive. Passiveness may come from culture and/or our genetic makeup and upbringing, but often comes from a lack of clarity of who we are and what we want out of our life at a point in time. Aggressiveness may again come from genetics or upbringing, but also often stems from frustration about ourselves, who we are and what we have “achieved” in life. It is difficult to measure what we have achieved when we have no idea of our purpose.

Purpose also makes it more difficult for us to believe and act as if we are victims in life. We get to choose our purpose and even in difficult circumstances can recalibrate negative experiences to positive.

The Role of Leaders

True leaders – not just those with the position or title that makes it natural to assume they are leaders, but those who do lead most often – know their purpose. Leaders who know their purpose have a role to play in helping others discover their purpose in life and thus release them from the encumbrances of ambiguity about who they and what they stand for.

Leaders create further leaders, by helping others discover their purpose.

Characteristics of Purpose

Understanding the characteristics of purpose is a good starting point for leaders to generate a sense of purpose in others.

Purpose seems elusive because it is. Many people never find their “true calling”. Most people find it after building up years of experience, which at the time may arise because they felt they had no choice, or from deliberate experimentation on their part. People sometimes just need to start doing something to find out what they started is not their purpose, rather than agonising over the question.

It is OK for people to feel that every time they think that they have arrived at their destination of finding out what their life is about, that they discover they have been through a false dawn that did not bring them the happiness they sought.

People’s purpose in life, once they discover it, is likely to change several times in their lifetime. This is not always the case of course, but it is so for most of us. The transition from one purpose to another can take years and leave people feeling aimless after years of certainty. The transitions may follow a traditional life cycle of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and aging. Or they may follow more emotional stages such as adolescence, emotional partnerships, parenting, empty nesting, aged and independent and aged and dependent.

At some stage, the purpose of a person’s life may well involve others, and in other stages it may be concentrated on themselves.

There is more likely to be an emotional connection with a person’s purpose, not just a skill. At times, the person concerned may not have the skill to directly fulfil their purpose, but can utilise another skill in a connected way. For example, an average sportsperson may find their purpose not to be directly involved with playing a sport, but to being involved in coaching or physiotherapy or administration, where they can match their skills with their passion (the sport itself) and find their purpose.

A person’s purpose is unlikely to involve living their life through others. That is, a purpose which draws their only personal satisfaction from the results of other people’s lives. People with such a purpose usually find it hollowed out over the years, as the people they lead their lives through move on.

Helping People find their Purpose at Work

Helping people find purpose at work is not only good for a leader to do in terms of issues such as morale, productivity and safety, it something which may help people with their overall purpose in life.

Vision and mission
Leaders can do worse than developing a vision (who or what we want to be) and a mission (the boundaries around how we will get there) in order for staff to at least begin to contemplate how they can contribute and establish a purpose in their working life.

Policy, process and procedure
Developing clear policies ensures that staff know the boundaries within which they must operate. It enables them to limit the range of what they may do within their purpose. It may well inform them that their working life purpose lies in another organisation or field, which is a good thing.

Processes and procedures help staff understand how the organisation wants to work, further clarifying the boundaries of the purpose of a person’s work , thus clarifying whether the purpose of their work fits with their personal purpose.

Performance development
Giving regular informal and formal feedback on a person’s performance enables them to understand whether what they do fits in with the way the organisation wants things done. This provides further clarification as to whether the purpose the organisation has for them matches their personal purpose.

Helping People find their overall Purpose

Finding purpose at work is only part of the journey to happiness. Finding an overall purpose in life which encompasses purpose at work is more likely to generate happiness than work alone.

Questions rather than assertions
In helping people along the journey of discovering their purpose at work, leaders should ask questions rather than make assertions. “I think your purpose in life is/should be <insert phrase describing our own biased view here>”, does not help people find their purpose. “What” questions are the key. “What” questions ask people to reply with facts. Questions such as:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What is it that you admire about other people?
  • What of the things you do now would you find difficult to give up?

Asking questions can lead you on to a string of questions which enables the other person to come to a conclusion themselves about their purpose.

The retirement speech and the deathbed soliloquy are two techniques using questions which may be quite powerful in helping people determine their purpose.

Alignment of Personal Vision and Mission with Corporate Vision and Mission

Helping people develop a personal vision and mission through questioning and aligning that vision and mission with the corporate vision and mission is a very powerful tool for good.

When a person can see that the person they want to be, and the boundaries they are willing to put around becoming that person, are aligned with what the organisation sees as its vision and mission, the person’s view of what their purpose is or is not becomes much clearer. This is equally true if the personal and corporate vision are not aligned and it makes more sense for the person to find another organisation/career.


Helping a person find their purpose is difficult. It requires close attention to the person involved and a high degree of questioning skills. At work, it may call for using techniques to both help the person understand themselves and provide some tools to help define their purpose at work.

When accomplished, it is the greatest gift a leader can give a person. It releases them from ambiguity, gives them focus, helps their decision making and prioritisation of time, allowing them to be more productive and self-satisfied. In their personal life away from work, it helps them stop being a victim of life and, rather, be a shaper of life.

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