Purpose is fragile

Vivienne Ming is right. Imprecise leadership destroys purpose.

Purpose can take a lifetime to build. Yet it can be destroyed in a blink of an eye. When I followed up with last quarter’s interviewee, the neuroscientist entrepreneur Dr Vivienne Ming (Dialogue Q2 2018 interview), our debrief soon turned to the fragility of purpose. Much is spoken about creating this precious intangible. Much less is written about how it might easily be lost. “You can drain people of their purpose,” Ming told me. This divestment is unlikely to come from any deliberate act. More likely, a series of unwitting missteps pave the road to Hell.

Misstep 1: Avoiding tradeoffs
Because purpose is defined by sacrifice, as Ming explained, leaders have to make the hard choices that purpose demands. That’s what keeps it authentic. This might mean turning down the chance to sell, hire or invest, if such acts fail to align with their purpose. “Purpose has to be lived by the leadership,” Ming said. “My research shows that if you say, ‘hey, we believe in diversity’ and your leadership team is straight, white, old guys, this is an action in conflict with your stated purpose. And you would have been better off saying, ‘hey, we’re here to get rich and to do so with people who make us comfortable’.” By failing to take the concrete actions that demonstrate that you are living the purpose, you destroy it.

Misstep 2: Confusing ‘why’ with ‘what’
Pursuing long-term business goals, such as expansion, greater revenue and increased profit can militate against purpose if purpose is not framed right. The key danger facing leaders is that they will succumb to the temptation to use purpose (‘why’ their business exists) to justify their financial aims (‘what’ they want to achieve). “Going after long-term outcomes can’t be the reason for pursuing purpose; it will destroy it,” Ming told me. She spoke of the “Catch-22 of purpose”, that if you focus on outcomes as the reason for your purpose, you are less likely to satisfy your purpose and – perversely – make your overall business outcomes harder to achieve.

Misstep 3: Do as I say not as I do
“There is a repeating instance in my research where companies had a purpose that they lived and died by – and were frequently dying by it,” she warned. “This was because their employees were expected to live by it, but their leaders were not.”

The business impacts of this misalignment are manifold. Ming’s research showed that retention suffered, performance fell, absenteeism rose. Conversely, those companies that lived and breathed authentic purpose throughout all levels of leadership enjoyed the exact opposite – greater retention, better performance and lower absenteeism.

“When you define purpose in generic terms, there’s an expectation that everyone is going to live up to the same purpose,” Ming said. “If Whole Foods’ purpose is to create a sustainable food culture, then everyone has a belief about how its chief executive should act. What we see a lot of in the start-up world is incredibly strong wording around purpose, but then the whole thing collapses when the leadership exhibits behaviours counter to the purpose.”

Ming is a Great Mind who submits a crucial, contradictory equation. The pursuit of outcomes over purpose leads to worse outcomes. The pursuit of purpose over outcomes leads to better outcomes. With apologies to Jack Kennedy, perhaps leaders need to think not what their purpose can do for their company, but what their company can do for their purpose.

— Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education