It is one thing to talk about purpose-driven leadership and quite another to turn that espoused purpose into real-world impact, according to Nick Craig, president of the Authentic Leadeship Institute, and Scott Snook, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. Here at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership, we’re all about turning aspirations into practice; we think Craig and Snook’s framework is worth a look.
Craig and Snook frame the argument in an article in Harvard Business Review:
“Despite this growing understanding [of the power of purpose], however, a big challenge remains. In our work training thousands of managers at organizations from GE to the Girl Scouts, and teaching an equal number of executives and students at Harvard Business School, we’ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement. They may be able to clearly articulate their organization’s mission: Think of Google’s ‘To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ or Charles Schwab’s ‘A relentless ally for the individual investor.’ But when asked to describe their own purpose, they typically fall back on something generic and nebulous: ‘Help others excel.’ ‘Ensure success.’ ‘Empower my people.’ Just as problematic, hardly any of them have a clear plan for translating purpose into action. As a result, they limit their aspirations and often fail to achieve their most ambitious professional and personal goals.“
One the their central tenets is that it is quite difficult to discern your true purpose — the person, Craig and Snook call the one “you can’t help being” as opposed to the person others want you to be — by yourself. You should use people who know you well and trust to act as “mirrors.” With these multi-faceted reflections of yourself to aid and validate your self-exploration, your true purpose can emerge from the themes that run through your life story. And, as Craig and Snook advise, your purpose statement should neither be generic nor crafted in typical business language but rather should be customized to best express your unique personal and professional ambitions and desires. An example of the difference they use is “Continually and consistently develop and facilitate the growth and development of myself and others leading to great performance” versus “With tenacity, create brilliance.” A powerful statement is short — more a tag line than a plaque on the wall — action oriented, and purpose rich.
An important part of Craig and Snook’s approach is the need to craft an action plan. It starts with honing a purpose statement and then writing an explanation of the statement. This one-two approach helps keep the statement punchy as the explanation provides a place to put the extra language you may want to preserve. Then you work from the long-term to the short by creating three-to-five year goals, two-year goals, one-year goals, and then critical immediate next steps. This cascade back from desired end state can make it easier to discern the first steps that must be taken on the journey. Finally, it is important to understand the relationships essential for realizing your plan.
Purpose-driven leadership can transform organizations and greatly expand the positive impact they have on stakeholders and society at large. Uncovering your true purpose takes courage and persistance as there are many forces — from traditional leadership development programs to many best-selling leadership books — that define leadership success as mastering a set of competencies or modeling prescribed behaviors. There is some value to these but only when you can inject them with what makes you uniquely you: Only use a cookie cutter when you want cookies. To unlock your true potential and that of other would-be leaders in your organization, you have to be in touch with your authentic purpose.