Leading with a Clear Purpose

During a phone call with a lifelong friend, I heard one of the most unique combinations of passion and despair that I can remember. He shared how he felt like he was just going through the motions in one aspect of his professional life, grinding his teeth through each project he completed, but constantly thinking about the impact he’s making in his other business!

To give you a bit more perspective, he and I knew one another from a distance for a couple of years before trading punches at the bus stop one evening after school. For whatever reason, that started what became a friendship lasting nearly four decades . Like any friendship, though, there have been times where we had less interaction than others but I can’t think of a single situation where I haven’t admired his work ethic and respected his character. While my working career began when I was around twelve years old, mine at the time was for spending money that I usually pissed away on things most kids enjoyed in those days; cassette tapes or CDs, a skateboard, a bike, video games (Super Mario, anyone…), and things of the sort. His work life started even earlier but it was for very different reasons; he was helping provide for his family! 

We worked together a time or two during and just out of high school but our careers took different paths shortly after that. I moved away from full time construction roles when I was 19 years old but he’s worked for himself ever since - often operating multiple businesses at the same time. I tend to keep a pretty full schedule but I’m not quite sure I could keep up with him!

As we talked, he shared that through his 20s and 30s, his drive to be the best in every field got him out of bed in the mornings. In his late 40s, though, it’s become far less about winning big jobs and making lots of money. His fulfillment at this point comes from teaching others from what he’s learned.

We touched on several other things during that hour-long phone call but the premise ties back to what I’ve felt at times myself and have seen so many other business owners struggle with at some point or another. Burnout isn’t just something employees face, the folks who own the company deal with it too! 

If we’re being honest, this is something everyone with any level of leadership responsibility will feel sooner or later…  The fact of the matter is Leadership is HARD! But here’s where I’ll caution you to not confuse barking orders at someone reporting to you with thinking you’re actually leading. Leading in a way that makes an immediate impact as well as a lasting positive difference can be a heavy burden. In the toughest times, the weight we carry as leaders can be more than most are prepared to bear! This is why it’s critical that we develop a crystal-clear understanding of a purpose that drives us to continue working to earn that genuine influence that is true leadership on a daily basis. When we’ve done that, we should have a solid starting point - but there’s still another place where purpose matters if we really want to achieve great results with the teams we lead: we have to become experts at helping each of our team members fulfill their purpose too!

If you’ll hang with me, we’ll walk through some very specific steps we can do as leaders to identify a strong purpose we can each grab hold of through even our toughest times AND help each individual we’ve earned leadership influence with understand how they’re working to fulfill their own purpose. And as we do those two things, I have no doubt that we’ll be able to see a measurable difference in the things that may have been previously killing our profitability!

Before we jump into any specific step though, I think it would serve us well to have a foundational understanding for how much this matters; to us in our respective leadership roles, to the team members who are counting on us, and to our entire organization!

Why Leaders Need a Clear Purpose…

If you really think about the challenge my friend shared with me in running one of his businesses, I’m betting you can relate! To that end, I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that way at some point regardless of the role we’re in. In chapter eight of What’s Killing Your Profitability?, I emphasized the importance of setting (and maintaining) both clear and high expectations for our teams. Tying those expectations to a meaningful purpose can make a critical difference in the level of engagement we get from those team members when we do. We’ll look at that more soon, but right now let’s focus on just how we need that meaningful purpose just as much - and maybe even more - than anyone we’re attempting to lead!

Truth be told, I’m convinced this matters for any role we ever fill - at any level and in any organization. Life throws crap at all of us from time to time. But when we’ve accepted responsibility for leading, it can seem like that crap is being thrown by a Cy Young winning pitcher instead of the fat guy in beer league softball!

As I often do, I scoured the internet for articles sharing statistics that showed a measurable difference in the performance of leaders who had a clear purpose versus leaders who did not. My initial search didn’t yield much that grabbed my attention. Nearly everything I found was blog posts from someone I had never heard of sharing their opinion. Rather than quoting some random guy’s opinion to you here, I’ll give you mine instead; at least we’ve got a bit of a connection and share some common ground…

I frequently emphasize that leadership is hard. And I always qualify that by cautioning anyone I’m speaking with to not confuse hard with complicated. Quite frankly, I’m convinced that leading a team effectively is far simpler and requires way less effort than attempting to manage our way to great results without earning influence. The hard I’m referring to is based on the intentional (and often extra) effort we need to apply daily to earn that influence and truly lead from a place of service instead of managing from a position based purely on authority. Before I share why I believe a clear and strong purpose is a must - especially in leadership - I need you to understand that I’m also convinced that the daily behaviors to lead this way that require slightly more effort are still significantly easier than the never ending difficulty tied to falling short of our goals due to not choosing that approach!

When we’ve got that clear and powerful purpose, though, nothing really seems as hard! The bad days suck a little less and even the worst tasks don’t drain us as much. When we have clarity around why everything we’re doing matters and we see the impact we’re making on the teams we lead and the customers or clients we serve, we’re excited to get out of bed in the morning and charge ahead into the day. But without that clear purpose, it can feel like every step we take is through thick and slimy red clay after a hard rain. As leaders, we carry a heavier personal load - whether we’re leading a team of employees or providing a service to our clients. While the responsibility of any given team member may not be the same, having a clear purpose matters just as much for them…

Why EVERYONE Needs a Clear Purpose…

If someone as driven as the friend I mentioned before can lose some motivation or feel burnout when they don’t feel like they’re making a meaningful impact, I’m convinced anyone with any level of leadership responsibility will too - sooner or later! And if business owners and leaders need a clear purpose to fuel them to push through the tough times, I don’t think we should believe for a minute that every single member of our teams doesn't need a purpose that’s just as clearly and directly tied to what they do!

Throughout What’s Killing Your Profitability?, I made references to a Harvard Business Review called Things They Do For Love, that shared:

“Company leaders won’t be surprised that employee engagement—the extent to which workers commit to something or someone in their organizations—influences performance and retention. But they may be surprised by how much engagement matters. Increased commitment can lead to a 57% improvement in discretionary effort—that is, employees’ willingness to exceed duty’s call. That greater effort produces, on average, a 20% individual performance improvement and an 87% reduction in the desire to pull up stakes, according to the Corporate Leadership Council, which surveyed more than 50,000 employees in more than 59 organizations worldwide.”

We’ll tie all this back to the impact a clear purpose can have on an entire organization shortly. For now, I’ll challenge you to name anyone you’ve ever seen who wasn’t in a leadership role who was willing to perform at their absolute best - indefinitely - without knowing exactly why the work they were doing mattered and who it was serving. I’ve known some incredibly hardworking people but even the best of them wouldn’t have maintained their highest pace without getting the fulfillment that only comes from latching onto a clear purpose!

With nearly every group we speak for or train, I make a strong case for just how important effective leadership is to earning the influence that yields the kind of employee engagement that drives the increased discretionary effort mentioned in the article. The best leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of working with were also the ones who were always intentional about providing every one of their team members with a clear purpose for what they were doing. And when they were able to replicate that skill in other leaders around them, it drove results in the entire organization. With that in mind, let’s look at what that can do for a profit and loss statement, then we’ll change gears to look at the power that clear purpose has AND how simple it is to keep it in front of a team…

Why Our Organization Needs a Clear Purpose…

Just for the sake of setting a foundation, let’s assume we - as the leader of our team - have an incredibly clear purpose that gets us out of bed each morning, ready to charge hell with a water pistol! Let’s also assume that having that kind of clarity personally allows us to be able to detail the same kind of clear purpose to every individual on our teams… (I realize there’s far more involved in doing that than just identifying our own purpose but we’ll get to that soon enough.) How would that impact our entire organization? And how much of a difference would that make to the clients and communities we serve?

In chapter seven of What’s Killing Your Profitability?, I worked through an example of how the “57% improvement in discretionary effort” suggested in that Harvard Business Review article would look in most organizations, specifically in how that increased level of employee engagement led to higher individual productivity. I won’t hash all that out again here but we’re on track for a Feb 20, 2024 release date and we’ve started accepting orders for signed copies so you can reserve yours if you’d like to go deeper in that detail. For the sake of what we’re working through here, I’ll share that for anyone to be able to increase their discretionary effort by a whopping 57%, the most they could have possibly been contributing prior to that would have been just 63% of what they were capable of. I also emphasized that I’ve never seen anyone achieve a true level of significance with barely over half of what they had in them…

In detailing “The Cost of Disengaged Employees” (chapter seven), I also referenced a Forbes article called “Why The Latest Engagement Statistics Are Unacceptable” that shared  this from Gallup’s “State of the Global Workforce” 2022 report:

Imagine out of 100 people in your business:

  • 21 people are powerfully rowing toward your company goals.
  • 19 people are actively rowing against them.
  • 60 people are just along for the ride, creating drag for those who are rowing forward.

I’ve never seen any high level of employee engagement in an organization, at least not engagement that lasted for any real length of time, without the majority of the team members having a clear purpose to strive toward. To have even a conservative picture of why our organization needs a clear purpose, consider the difference we could see in our bottom line if we saw only enough increased discretionary effort to yield just a 10% improvement in individual performance from 79 percent of our workforce…

If a 57% increase could amount to a 20% improvement, I think it’s fair to believe that a 29% increase would get us to 10%. And since the 21 people (out of a 100) who “are powerfully rowing toward your company goals” are the ones generally considered actively engaged and are probably giving us nearly all they’re capable of already, we won’t expect even more - although far too many organizations do just that without ever attempting to increase performance from the rest of the workforce!

For now, I want you to consider how much better your organization’s performance could be if nearly 80% of your workforce improved their individual productivity by 10% in the next quarter… How would that impact profitability? How could that better serve your clients? And how much more good could your company do for the community you’re a part of?

I’ve often heard the phrase “transformational leadership” held up as something that few leaders ever achieve. In fact, Cindy and I served as part of a small team for several years to identify someone worthy of the annual (at the time) John Maxwell Transformational Leadership Award. The longer I’ve studied leadership and human behavior, the more convinced I’ve become that transformational leadership does not need to be rare or difficult to achieve. I believe it is as simple as providing a clear purpose to our team! Moving forward, we’ll look at the power in having that purpose and just how simple it can be to identify it…