Leading Through Purpose: 4 Must Have Requirements

In Leadership, Purpose, Mission & Values

“Because I said so!”

Certainly words toddlers hear often from exasperated parents who, when confronted with the 100th “Why?” of the day, can think of no better way to communicate. While it may be tempting to use a similar management style at work, the “because-I-said-so” strategy is just as effective with today’s employees as it is with today’s toddlers. Which is to say, not at all.

Gone today are the parents’ switch and belt (thankfully), and also gone are the days of command and control as the most effective leadership style. It can be argued that in times of crisis this style of leadership based on military organization is valid … but in the day to day management of human beings it is more than ineffective–it’s often disastrous.

What employees need are leaders to help them 1) understand the purpose of their enterprise, 2) see how this purpose fulfills some need in the world, 3) know that this purpose is commonly understood and shared across all stakeholders including leadership, and finally, 4) articulate their role in achieving that purpose.

As Visa’s founder and former CEO Dee Hock says:

“To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they’ll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.”

Having a clearly and compellingly articulated purpose is the first step. The next is to hire people who choose to work for your company because of what you stand for, not what you offer them. Valuable lessons can be learned when for-profit executives take a turn leading a non-profit organization as president of a board of trustees or as a volunteer leader of a committee or project.

Before he became CEO of one of the most beloved and successful hospitality companies in New York City, Danny Meyer worked as a field coordinator for a failed presidential campaign in 1980. He credits this experience with teaching him a valuable lesson:

“Learning to manage volunteers – to whom, absent a paycheck, idea and ideals were the only currency – thought me to view all employees essentially as volunteers. Today, even with compensation as a motivation, I know that anyone who works for my company chooses to do so because of what we stand for. I believe that anyone who is qualified for a job in our company is also qualified for many other jobs at the same pay scale. It’s up to us to provide solid reasons for our employees to want to work for us, over and beyond their compensation.”

By understanding and being able to articulate purpose – for their company, their employees and all stakeholders – leaders will enable faster decision-making, unleash innovation, and retain talent in our increasingly fast-paced and competitive marketplace. All by being prepared to confidently answer the most fundamental question: “Why?”

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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.