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At Lockstep, there’s not much we relish more than developing leaders of organisations that have a clear, daring and inspired sense of purpose. Purpose-based businesses tend to be more invigorated, creative and attractive to engaged, ‘woke’ talent and consumers alike. Not to mention that they are far more fun and meaningful to engage with.

However, I’ve begun to notice some undesirable impacts creep into organisations when the concept of purpose is misused or ill-thought-through. There are two you should watch out for which could have an undesirable and negative impact on your own system:

 Purpose as justification for poor business practice.

While working in my very first job at a university research institution, I was approached by the founder of an NPO who had designed a revolutionary concept for transforming education. I was wholly transfixed by his vision and passion so I jumped on board as a full-time educator with a gusto that (almost) matched his. When my family questioned the significant salary cut and absence of benefits I had agreed to, I spoke of the importance of purpose and meaning in my work (pre-empting the millennial anthem by at least 15 years). 

And, boy, was there purpose – everywhere we looked, in every student’s eyes, every moment of the day. However, after a while, I began to realise that the presence of so much purpose was eclipsing all other considerations. Employee wellbeing, sustainable and sensible growth, strong operational structures, personal career paths, consultative leadership and transparency (especially when the picture didn’t look good) were all subtly expected to bow down to the grand, transformative possibility of the venture. 

I joined as one of the biggest believers but after only a year I grew so sick and depleted (on many levels) that I resigned. While the venture had some extraordinary successes, it could not sustain itself and folded a few years later.

It may be true that there is more risk of this happening in the development sector, but we’ve worked closely with a couple of businesses that have exhibited similar, and counter-productive, patterns. 

If any of these subtle interpretations have crept into your system, it may be time to reconsider and carefully reframe the role that purpose is actually playing:

  • Support the purpose = individuals’ personal wellbeing and career ambition is less important.
  • Support the purpose = forget process or structures, just roll with it.
  • Support the purpose = don’t question too much.
  • Support the purpose = it’s ok for the leaders to bend some rules or exaggerate successes.
  • Support the purpose = don’t bring up bad news.
  • Support the purpose = don’t slow us down or get in the way.

 Purpose as justification for exclusion.

‘’If they can’t get on board with where the train is going, they should disembark’’, I recently heard a CEO saying. 

It’s true that an employee who is clearly misaligned with the purpose of the business will find it difficult to be enthusiastic, high performing or a great team player. But I think we should be careful about creating yet another potential category of exclusion in this way. 

It takes time, repetition and patience (usually much more than you think) to get employees to properly understand and align with an organisation’s purpose, especially if it’s a new idea. Some people take to it easily, others remain uncertain and questioning for longer than convenient. 

There may well be a few passengers that need to disembark the train but let’s invest generously and patiently in bringing people on board so that, as far as possible, purpose is used as a uniting force rather than as an exclusionary one.

When we work with the leaders of a system, here are some of the questions we ask about the organisation’s relationship to purpose:

  1. If there is a defined purpose for the business, has it been articulated in one, powerful, clear sentence?
  2. Where is this visible to staff and to other stakeholders?
  3. How does the leadership reinforce and remind the system of this purpose? (Hint: this has to be done repeatedly)
  4. How inclusive was the process of defining the purpose? Whose voice was left out and what are the consequences of that?
  5. Who might be ‘anti’ this purpose and why? How can we learn and become more balanced by integrating the perspectives of the naysayers?
  6. What might unintentionally be neglected or undervalued as we drive our purpose?
  7. Is there a balance in this business between the pursuits of the individual (remuneration, career ambition, stability etc) and the pursuits of the collective (the purpose)?

We recognise that questioning the actual (as opposed to idealised) effects of purpose is a new and possibly uncomfortable conversation for many leaders. Helping with tough conversations and a deeper connection to personal and organisational purpose is a key element of our work. 

Reach out to us at leadership@lockstep.co.za  if you would like to start the conversation. 

Angela Deutschmann

Angela Deutschmann

Angela Deutschmann is a Senior Associate and Head of the Enneagram Practice at Lockstep. Angela focuses on co-facilitating leadership retreats, coaching senior clients and contributing to the personal development aspects of the leadership programmes. Having left the corporate world at age 29, Angela devoted herself to building a practice of intimate and cutting-edge personal development. She has thirteen years’ experience of being an intuitive coach, workshop leader, facilitator, and speaker – with the intent on building bridges between doing and being; performance and presence.

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