Purpose Before Strategy: Changing Course to Stay Alive

In Change, Brand Strategy, Purpose, Mission & Values

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. – William Arthur Ward

I remember a beautiful summer day many years ago sailing across the Long Island Sound with some family friends. As we approached the shipping channel, their teenage daughter (who had the helm) noticed that if we continued our course, we would sail directly into the path of a very, very large container ship. She suggested to her father the captain (a very lovely, if very obstinate Frenchman) that we might change course to avoid a collision. He replied from below deck, “Non! We are sailing and on a starboard tack. He is under power. We have the right of way! Stay your course!” After a few moments of heated discussion, he peeked his head up through the cockpit to see that the powerboat in question was the length of four soccer fields … and then acquiesced.

In this moment, I learned a valuable lesson. It is possible to be very right, and also very dead.

It is easy to lock into a strategy and feel compelled to stick with it, no matter what comes. It fact, it can feel virtuous. But it is important to remember that strategy is simply a means to an end. What we should be more concerned with is where we are headed – and our purpose in going there.

Sailboats don’t get to their destination in a straight line, and neither do companies … there are too many variables. Wind, weather, current, tides, rocks and the course of other boats are the concern of sailing captains. For business leaders, even more variables exist. Market pressure, staffing challenges, competition, consumer spending, changes in regulation and customer sentiment – to name a few – can all impact your companies ability to follow the strategies you have so carefully laid out and demand fast action to rethink and change direction.

Agility is key, and the key to agility is a solid understanding of your purpose. Do the hard work to define your purpose. Then use purpose as your compass. Purpose is your true north … the only thing you will not deviate from on your journey. How you reach your destination and the strategies you employ along the way, will change. They must. How they change, and how quickly, will depend entirely on how well you and your crew, know and truly understand your purpose. Use it as a filter for all strategic decisions, as a way to measure whether your strategies are working in the moment, and determine how to adjust your sails when they aren’t. Without purpose, no amount of change in course will get you to your destination correctly.

By understanding the purpose of your venture before you set out, you can choose the exact strategies to get your business where you want to go and be agile enough to change your course with the wind along the way.


Haley Boehning is a principal 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.