Great Leadership Depends on a Higher Purpose

Jane Horan
5 min readSep 18, 2020

It’s not what you do as a leader, but why and how you do it.

“Purpose-driven” organizations have intersected with the mainstream for years. Most of us are aware that businesses today should stand for something more than just their product or service. Organizational ‘purpose’ is increasingly considered the key to navigating complex challenges and rapid change. Which is today’s world.

Last year, 181 CEO’s signed The Business Roundtable’s new statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, committing to lead their companies for the benefit of all. Defining organizational purpose is a big task, made bigger when values don’t match reality.

What’s more important (and often downplayed) is a leader’s purpose; who they are, what distinguishes them from anyone else who might do that role. Defining a purpose provides context for a leader’s activities. Without it you’re just going through the motions.

What is purpose-driven leadership?

Imagine taking a leader out of her role and put someone else in who’s equally good. Guaranteed there will be an instant atmospheric shift, as each person has their own brand of enthusiasm and creativity, and leaders embody behaviors they want to impart. In this transition of leadership we see that ‘purpose’. What did people miss about the old leader? Which behaviors were valued and prioritized? How did the previous leader inspire? That is purpose: the intersection of strengths and values, the essence which makes you (and only you) tick.

If that sounds soft and ethereal, it isn’t. Purpose is full of hard edges. It does not change from job to job or organization to organization. Leadership purpose goes far deeper than business achievements (although ideally the two align significantly).

Benefits of purpose driven-leadership

To define your purpose and find the courage to live it is the single most impactful leadership exercise you can take.

The motivation to go the distance: Purpose is to get excited about going to work. In 2018, EY found that 96% of leaders believed that purpose was critically important to job satisfaction. Compared to those searching for that ‘something,’ energy levels among leaders with clarity of purpose was 60% higher.

Emotionally committed workforce: Engagement levels are 12% higher and employee retention is 14% higher in teams led by a purpose-driven leader. It’s a given that people care less about working for a company and much more about working for a leader who puts into practice what they feel strongly about.

Resilience in the face of change: The world is changing at a dizzying rate. It no longer makes sense to have a vision for the next few years, as reality will look quite different. Purpose, on the other hand, is supple in the face of change. It is energy that keeps everyone going when things fall apart.

Strong culture: Purpose-driven leaders provide causes worth attaining, showing there’s a bigger game to play. Their teams boast a stronger culture than those without purpose, and that difference is multiplied when all hell is breaking loose. When you strip it all away — job certainty, revenue streams, past performance, the economic foundations your career was built on — all that’s left is the difference you made and the impact on others.

Your job role is not your purpose!

I’ll safely say few leaders understand their purpose. (Well maybe the 181 leaders signing the Business Round Table Purpose Statement know their purpose). What I’ve found, fewer can articulate their purpose into a concrete statement. Some will recite their organization’s purpose: we have LinkedIn’s “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce,” or Disney’s “To entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling.”

But when ask to define their own purpose, most fall back onto cliches: “Help others succeed,” “Empower my people,” “Support my team to achieve their goals as I achieve mine.”

Those are not purpose statements. They are reflective of what a leader thinks they should be saying to the public. Purpose is not a summary of your achievements, nor a catchy tagline. If the PR teams are happy, then it’s probably not purpose at all.

Other statements may appear as a good reason for existing, but that’s not purpose; it’s a cause: For example, “To end world hunger.” What makes that a priority? Can you aim to make a difference in a way that resonates with you and you alone? That’s your purpose. It says everything about who you are and how you show up in the world.

How do you find purpose?

Finding purpose is hard. If it was easy, we’d all have a clear sense of who we are and why we’re here. After working with hundreds of leaders, I can say that finding purpose is a lot of detective work, some hard self-reflection along with the support of people who may know you better than you know yourself.

The challenge for leaders is not to find a purpose, but reconnecting with the purpose you’ve always had. That starts with discovery — cutting through the chatter and messages from family, teachers, bosses, gurus -and all of social media- in order to capture those pivotal life moments which shaped and defined you to who you are today.

We use a variety of prompts to help this process:

Take a walk down Memory Lane, what set your imagination on fire before the world told you what you could or could not do? How did that curiosity show itself to the world? Think of a moment and describe how it made you feel.

What are your life’s pivotal moments? What have you learned from these events? Pivotal moments are important times in a leader’s journey, where they learnt from their choices and consequences. Maybe you came from humble beginnings and grabbed every opportunity, or maybe you met someone whose advice was life changing.

For me, a pivotal moment was to take a teaching job in Hunan Province, China, despite knowing little of the culture and nothing of the language. A serendipitous decision changed the trajectory of my career. Challenges and choices provide the deepest insights into our motivations. Reflecting on choices made help leaders harness their true purpose in life.

What do you like to do that gives you energy? As humans, we all compartmentalize; placing our career, relationships and interests into separate boxes. Yet it’s at the intersection of these areas where you see purpose. If you have a life-long passion for competitive sports, does the language used help define how you see your career? Perhaps your purpose is to “break a marathon record’’ or ‘’help others run the race they were meant to win.” Both offer insights.

Don’t go it alone

Some people come to this exercise leaning toward self-reflection. Others find the experience uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. Working with a coach or a trusted advisor is often the best way to have a sounding board.

It’s tough to identify your leadership purpose on your own.

While finding your purpose takes courage, the payoff is well worth it. Knowing what drives you, what fires up your soul and what makes you different; that’s how to inspire others and fulfill your purpose. It is not what you do. It is why and how you do it which makes the difference.



Jane Horan

Author. Helping people find meaningful work. I write monthly on inclusion, political savvy and careers and how these interconnect.