The idea that leadership should connect to some sense of “purpose” is clearly in vogue today. There are several business bestsellers and numerous esoteric titles suggesting as much on alone. Enlightened leadership is a broadly appealing thought. Who can argue against having a noble purpose in life, or for your company? But as nice at is sounds, what does it actually mean? How does a person – much less an organization attain a sense of real purpose? More to the point, what do you need to know about having a purpose —or knowing as much about “why” you lead as “how” you lead others?

It’s easy to dismiss the “need” for a clear sense of purpose to drive businesses as the fodder of self-help books and the mumbo-jumbo of self-proclaimed business gurus. No person or business ever became successful by simply writing a vision or mission statement. How we think may be critical to how we perform, but the idea that we “Think and Grow Rich” – is no more plausible than believing that “hope” is a viable method or strategy.

I believe it is clear that nothing worth accomplishing has ever been achieved without the dedication of hard work, commitment – and like it or not – some luck.  So why, then, does having a deep sense of “purpose” make a difference in achieving your best or realizing your potential? How is having a purpose all that different than hoping for the best?

I would address the question by suggesting that purpose is what aligns our thinking with whatever actions we take. Purpose links directly to planning. In fact – it is what guides our plans. It speaks to what is necessary and why. Without purpose the actions we take tend to be random or misguided. Luck becomes a more needed ingredient in accomplishing what we set out to do. But by leading with purpose we can understand what we need to “be” in order to do what needs to be done. In other words – the characteristics that enable us to plan for what we want to have happen, plan around what we do not want to have happen – and even plan for the unexpected – all come from understanding the purpose behind our actions.

On a day-to-day basis, most of what we plan for amounts to decisions we make by habit. A good example could be when to have lunch and what to eat. The simple purpose is to make sure there is time to grab a bite – and then make a choice based on what you “feel” like or would prefer to eat – or sometimes just what is simply convenient to our circumstances. I don’t really feel like eating my yoghurt – but don’t have time to go out and get a sandwich. Or I don’t have time to sit down and have a sensible, healthy lunch – so I’ll whip through the McDonalds drive-through – and eat while driving to my appointment.

But having a greater purpose provides further guidance. Rather than a Pavlovian reaction to it either being noon – or simply that we are hungry (followed by stuffing our face with either whatever is convenient – or tempting) we might instead determine that eating is really about health and nutrition. A Big Mac, fries and a Coke – would solve the hunger, and perhaps be an efficient use of time – but not be at all efficacious if the purpose driving my thinking about “lunch” suggests that I need more and better than fat and empty calories. In fact, I might prefer to stay hungry than make a poor choice based on how I see the need for a mid-day meal to “perform.”  Or, I might even “be” prepared with some healthy choices packed with me in my car for just such circumstances. My choices become driven by something bigger than what is simply expedient – and in the long run in this example, my ultimate goal and greater purpose to be healthy and vital is being served. Purpose is what helps us replace bad habits with good ones.

The same is true with every set of choices and decisions we face. We can up the level of performance only when we have a clear idea of what is truly important. That translates into understanding not only the purpose of our actions – but what it is we ultimately intend to achieve or accomplish. This is efficacy.

There really can be little doubt that for any company to sustainably perform at a high level – there must be a driving force. That driving force is a matter of leadership. For leaders to perform in a highly effective manner, you must connect to some sense of purpose and then be able to instill that purpose into the DNA or the habits of the organization. The greater the purpose is, the stronger the driving force will be.

It is imperative to separate cause and effect when thinking about purpose. Making money or profits is not the purpose-driven cause – it is the consequence of having accomplished something that is ideally valuable and hopefully worthwhile. Making money might be the goal to a mint or a counterfeiter – but for most of us it is the harvest of all the planning and execution that goes into doing whatever it is our businesses are designed to accomplish.

Knowing why your company is designed to do whatever you do is the foundation of purpose. The more noble the purpose is, the less the possibility that the cause is contrived. In fact, the greatest causes tend not to be had by people – people tend to be had by them. The cause has its teeth in the leader of the organization – and she cannot shake its grasp. That might be a lofty notion – and I am not suggesting that success in what we do requires that kind of passionate engagement with a cause – but I am quite certain that to improve your company’s performance – and yield greater profits as a result, you must have a sense of purpose beneath your feet and in front of the people you lead. Once you have defined your purpose and the purpose for your organization, not just why it exists, but why it must exist – you can then fully define your role and the role for your employees in accomplishing whatever it is you do. This is the key to driving the highest level of real performance possible. It may be the single key to unlock the greatest potential of yourself, your people and your organization.

Recommended Additional Reading: Harvard Business Review published a piece by Nick Craig and Scott Snook titled “From Purpose to Impact.” It is available It furthers the thinking as to why “purpose” is vital to any organization’s success in wonderful and explicit detail.

Phil Liebman is Founder and CEO of the BullFrog Group, a tenured Vistage Chair- and a Fellow at The Thayer Institute for Leadership Virtuosity. You can reach him at – or visit his Website Phil is dedicated to making the world measurably more socially just, economically sustainable and culturally vibrant through cultivating the fullest potential and best possible performance of organizations and the people who lead them.


This post was originally published on The Thayer Institute Website: