Here’s How CEOs Can Truly Find Purpose

This morning I had a long conversation with my friend about purpose and it made me think about Michelle Obama. The former First Lady, writing in her new memoir, Becoming, talks about how she struggled to find ‘purpose’ when her husband became President. It wasn’t until she came face-to-face with a classroom full of London schoolgirls, determined to not let societal obstacles to stand in their way, that she came to understand the purpose behind her role. They inspired her.

My friend runs a company that most people will have heard of but few have ever heard of him. Suffice it to say that he’s incredibly successful, hard-working, deservedly wealthy and a good bloke. He’s also deeply disillusioned with it all, after years at the helm.

‘There’s got to be something more, Grant,’ he said, as if reading from a book of clichés. ‘It’s all going really well but I’m bored because I lack something. Purpose maybe. I want to do something more but I don’t think I can step away. I feel shackled by what the job brings.’

My response was this. Go to a four-day week and spend that fifth day helping people – charities, schools, business lectures, whatever, maybe set up a trust. And allow people in your company to do the same. Tell them: ‘If you want, take time off to do some good and add a bit of meaning to your working lives. You’ll be paid slightly less but maybe receive far more than monetary benefit in return.’ Don’t encourage them – that’s too preachy. Allow them to volunteer.

He batted away my suggested solution without hesitation. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that such instinctive rejection goes to the heart of why so many business leaders fall short (not him!). They see leadership as something that defines them rather than an opportunity to use leadership to help define other people. An enabler rather than just a self-important, grandiose title.

There is a moment in everyone’s life when they feel as if they want to change the world for the better. It normally occurs in childhood or adolescence before our innate selfishness takes over, coupled with a reasonable assumption that our messianic ambitions are never likely to be fulfilled. There are plentiful notable exceptions, of course, but most people are out to look after themselves.

Today’s working culture is different. People under 40, especially those entering work for the first time, have more lofty ideals. They want to do something other than just take home a good salary, they want to make a positive difference, contribute to society in ways that perhaps their parents – me included – didn’t. It’s not about simply having more flexible working hours, it’s about finding meaning.

This recent report from Deloitte suggested 78% of workers want more flexible working hours but that when they got them, almost a third felt they had less status.

Leaders who use their influence to enable their staff to do something more meaningful – tiny contribution though that might be – will not just help employees find purpose but will find purpose themselves because of their actions as leaders. I suspect that if my friend enacted some kind of ‘Give something back on the 5th day’ scheme, he’d be transformed even if he didn’t take part. Because he’d have used his exalted position to do good.

There’s a new book out by General Stanley McChrystal called Leaders: Myth and Reality. The myth, says the four-star general, is that too often leaders think they are more important than the team that surrounds them. That their main role and responsibility is to drive and inspire people towards a certain outcome. Instead, he argues, leaders should ‘shift their mindset to think of themselves as a node in a network rather than the top apex of a triangle’.

They are part of something, not the something.

The perpetual conversation about purpose in our culture reminds me of an old Mose Allison song I love called Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy, in which the title is followed by the line: ‘When they don’t know the meaning of the word.’

Everyone’s talking about purpose when they don’t know the meaning of the word. Perhaps one of the meanings is that leaders can be purposeful by allowing others to be more purposeful than themselves.

Just because you don’t want to do something, or don’t have the time or even courage to do it because of what the shareholders might think, it doesn’t mean that nobody else should. You never know, you might feel good about it…

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