Finding Purpose Tips for Leaders

Finding Purpose

Tips for Leaders

What is our purpose for being? What are we here to do? One of the most useful articles I’ve read recently that addressed this question was in Greater Good Magazine. It summarizes six ways to find your purpose in life and offers some truly valuable insight. I highly recommend reading the entire article. But in case you only have time for the abbreviated version, here’s a summary:
  1. Read. “Reading connects us to people we’ll never know, across time and space—an experience that research says is linked to a sense of meaning and purpose.” Author Jeremy Adam cites studies that find that adolescents who read more—in particular religious writing, fiction and poetry—have a “stronger sense of purpose.” This is good news for those who might want to help their kids with purpose, and I would think it would apply to working professionals as well.
  2. Turn hurts into healing for others. “Of course, finding purpose is not just an intellectual pursuit; it’s something we need to feel,” says Jeremy. “That’s why it can grow out of suffering, both our own and others’.” Interestingly, the word “passion” literally comes from the word “suffering,” and we’ve seen time and again in human history how suffering has inspired people to action. We’ve learned from personal-best leadership experiences that challenge is the crucible for greatness, and that exemplary leaders can find vision and purpose in very adverse circumstances.
  3. Cultivate awe, gratitude, and altruism. “Several studies conducted by the Greater Good Science Center’s Dacher Keltner have shown that the experience of awe makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves—and so can provide the emotional foundation for a sense of purpose.” Add to the sense of awe a drive to make a positive contribution to the world and purpose blossoms. It makes me wonder what we might do in our leadership development programs to create a sense of awe before asking people to do an Inspire a Shared Vision exercise. Maybe a walk in nature? Maybe looking at photographs of young children having fun? Maybe a view of earth from space? I bet there’s lots we could do with this one.
  4. Listen to what others appreciate about you. “Giving thanks can help you find your purpose. But you can also find purpose in what people thank you for.” When people express gratitude to us for something we’ve done for them or for others, it can help us connect to what’s important to us. This one is really cool. It takes Encourage the Heart in an entirely new direction. It helps us—and others—to view the appreciations as clues to purpose in life. It adds another dimension to the expressions of thanks by connecting an action to a larger goal, to the “why” of what we are doing.
  5. Find and build community. “If you’re having trouble remembering your purpose, take a look at the people around you. What do you have in common with them? What are they trying to be? What impact do you see them having on the world?” More than likely there’s a group or two with which you have a strong emotional connection. What do these folks collectively aspire to achieve? What does that tell you about your purpose? This is another great addition to visioning exercises. Who are you hanging around with? What’s the common good you are working on together?
  6. Tell your story. “Reading can help you find your purpose—but so can writing. Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life.” There’s a narrative to one’s life, and being able to tell that story helps connect people to what’s meaningful and important to them. We see that when people tell their personal-best stories. It reminds us that there’s more to these stories than just a set of leadership behaviors. They also can help those who struggle with vision and purpose to find threads they can weave together into a larger story. 
As you can no doubt tell, I found many ways that all of The Five Practices connect to the search for purpose and meaning. It’s not just through Inspire a Shared Vision that leaders can discover their purpose. There are clues in each of the Practices, and because many folks struggle with envisioning the future, it would be fun to explore how we can integrate some of these other pathways into that journey.

Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also the recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the just-released Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert), fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.


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