Why purposeful leadership matters

Why purposeful leadership matters

“I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Many of us know this story and it encapsulates purposeful leadership perfectly.

In 1962, President J.F.K visited NASA. During his tour of the facility, he met a janitor who was carrying a broom down a corridor. J.F.K casually asked the man what he did for NASA, and his reply joined other great quotes in history, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The janitor knew something that many of us and our employees struggle with, the purpose of his work.

He kept the building clean so that the others could focus on their mission and get Neil Armstrong and his astronauts to the moon for tea with the Clangers and Soup Dragon.

Engineers and scientists didn’t spend their time on bins, bathrooms, or corridors. He did that. He knew where he stood within NASA, and he connected his purpose with theirs.

Most of us will never know that kind of adventure and if you’re scared of heights or unnerved by being catapulted into space folded into a long metal tube, then perhaps a mop and bucket is as close as you’d want to be. But at least you’d also know how what you do fits a wider purpose.

For many that’s not the case.

Why we should care: purpose is important

Research by Harvard reported that 90% of those polled believed that work should bring a sense of purpose to their life. Not unreasonable given how many people spend the largest portion of their lives at work. And perhaps even more important for those permanently working from home, often alone with just biscuits and an animal companion for company.

However, accessing meaning at work often depends upon where you sit in the business and organisation chart.

Whilst McKinsey & Co identified that a whopping 85% of executives, owners and senior leaders can draw a direct line between what they do and the meaning that has; only 15% of frontline managers say the same. And these folks are often those who are customer facing or managing teams who are.

The very people entrusted to use purposeful leadership to engage, motivate, and energise your people to great things. Suddenly the task looks mammoth, and our janitor has discovered that his broom has been swapped out for a cotton bud…it’s going to be a long day for everyone.

If you’re fond of vintage TV crime, then you’ll also know that Columbo would famously conclude his investigations with “And just one more thing.” Before nailing the murderer. Just when you think the bad news has all arrived…there’s more.

Over a third of employees also described feeling a disconnect between their business’ stated purpose and its day-to-day actions. “We stand for this, but today we’ll go ahead and do that instead…” A Glassdoor review discovered that as many leavers pan the purpose of their business as support it.

A good reminder that purposeful leadership is way more than a snazzy brand-positioning statement on a website or worthy words stuck on posters in a stairwell. Although if you’re missing a NASA janitor, it might at least distract people from the cobwebs!

“Shouldn’t being paid and having decent tech be enough?

Surely serving our customers or growing our business will keep people engaged?

We have perks and treats now and again, isn’t that sufficient?”

Sadly not.

So what’s to be done?

The benefits of having a lived and explicit purpose.

Fostering meaningful and authentic work pays dividends. Time and again research has demonstrated that purpose-orientated companies overperform on revenue growth and achieve 30% higher levels of innovation, showing the positive impact of purposeful leadership.

When the organisation’s purpose is alive and aligned to employees, 77% are more likely to be engaged at work and 87% report a higher intent to stay.

Gallup research found that a 10% improvement in employees’ connection with their organisation’s mission or purpose leads to an 8.1% decrease in turnover and a 4.4% increase in profitability. Straight to the bottom line; profit. The stuff that drives re-investment, growth and business longevity, further demonstrating the importance of purposeful leadership.

When people are engaged, they are more likely to support the change and become spokespeople for the transition. Which beats any amount of fancy biscuits, perk boxes or company away-days.

Five steps to leveraging purpose in your business

  1. Have one – that’s real, true and resonates with everyone. If you need somewhere to begin, Simon Synek’s “Start with Why” is a great resource. Co-create it with those around you in your business. Listen to the stories others tell. Few if any get out of bed to make you rich, but there’ll be a whole host of other stories that will shape the “Why?”
  2. Recruit people with values consistent with your purpose. “Winning is everything” might sound appealing in an interview for a sales manager, but what about the body count internally and what about that word “fair” that’s within your purpose statement?
  3. Lead and champion meaningful employee experiences that are inclusive, safe, and appreciative. With the world fuelled by home working, contractors and the gig-economy, a sense of connectedness and psychological safety is paramount. Purposeful leadership ensures they are aligned to your purpose and not just one-off initiatives designed to spruce up your ESG credentials.
  4. Develop the in-house expertise to innovate around your purpose. Where people champion purpose, let them take the lead and bring it to life for everyone. Ensuring no one gets left behind. Support what they’re doing – visibly and verbally. Use it as a touchstone for tough decisions.
  5. Treat people consistently. When you’re navigating changes to your business, your offering and your organisation make sure it’s done with grace and in alignment with your purpose and values.

And just one more thing…think carefully about how you role-model purposeful leadership as the leader of your business.

Others will be watching you, and there’s no such thing as an off-camera moment! Read more about how to give someone leadership skills.