From Purpose to Impact

Figure out your passion and put it to work. This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Harvard Business Review.

By Nick Craig and Scott Snook


Over the past five years, there’s been an explosion of interest in purpose-driven leadership. Academics argue persuasively that an executive’s most important role is to be a steward of the organization’s purpose. Business experts make the case that purpose is a key to exceptional performance, while psychologists describe it as the pathway to greater well-being.
Doctors have even found that people with purpose in their lives are less prone to disease. Purpose is increasingly being touted as the key to navigating the complex, volatile, ambiguous world we face today, where strategy is ever changing and few decisions are obviously right or wrong.
Despite this growing understanding, however, a big challenge remains. In our work training thousands of managers at organizations from GE to the Girl Scouts, and teaching an equal number of executives and students at Harvard Business School, we’ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement. They may be able to clearly articulate their organization’s mission: Think of Google’s “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” or Charles Schwab’s “A relentless ally for the individual investor.” But when asked to describe their own purpose, they typically fall back on something generic and nebulous: “Help others excel.” “Ensure success.” “Empower my people.” Just as problematic, hardly any of them have a clear plan for translating purpose into action. As a result, they limit their aspirations and often fail to achieve their most ambitious professional and personal goals.
Our purpose is to change that—to help executives find and define their leadership purpose and put it to use. Building on the seminal work of our colleague Bill George, our programs initially covered a wide range of topics related to authentic leadership, but in recent years purpose has emerged as the cornerstone of our teaching and coaching. Executives tell us it is the key to accelerating their growth and deepening their impact, in both their professional and personal lives. Indeed, we believe that the process of articulating your purpose and finding the courage to live it—what we call purpose to impact—is the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader.

What is Purpose?


Your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive. Whether you’re an entrepreneur at a start-up or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a call center rep or a software developer, your purpose is your brand, what you’re driven to achieve, the magic that makes you tick. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do your job and why—the strengths and passions you bring to the table no matter where you’re seated. Although you may express your purpose in different ways in different contexts, it’s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you and would miss most if you were gone.
At its core, your leadership purpose springs from your identity, the essence of who you are. Purpose is not a list of the education, experience, and skills you’ve gathered in your life. We’ll use ourselves as examples: The fact that Scott is a retired army colonel with an MBA and a PhD is not his purpose. His purpose is “to help others live more ‘meaning-full’ lives.” Purpose is also not a professional title, limited to your current job or organization. Nick’s purpose is not “To lead the Authentic Leadership Institute.” That’s his job. His purpose is “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” He has been doing just that since he was a teenager, and if you sit next to him on the shuttle from Boston to New York, he’ll wake you up (figuratively), too. He simply can’t help himself.
Purpose is definitely not some jargon-filled catch-all (“Empower my team to achieve exceptional business results while delighting our customers”). It should be specific and personal, resonating with you and you alone. It doesn’t have to be aspirational or cause-based (“Save the whales” or “Feed the hungry”). And it’s not what you think it should be. It’s who you can’t help being. In fact, it might not necessarily be all that flattering (“Be the thorn in people’s side that keeps them moving!”).

How do you find it? 


Finding your leadership purpose is not easy. If it were, we’d all know exactly why we’re here and be living that purpose every minute of every day. As E.E. Cummings suggests, we are constantly bombarded by powerful messages (from parents, bosses, management gurus, advertisers, celebrities) about what we should be (smarter, stronger, richer) and about how to lead (empower others, lead from behind, be authentic, distribute power). To figure out who you are in such a world, let alone “be nobody but yourself,” is indeed hard work. However, our experience shows that when you have a clear sense of who you are, everything else follows naturally.
Some people will come to the purpose-to-impact journey with a natural bent toward introspection and reflection. Others will find the experience uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. A few will just roll their eyes. We’ve worked with leaders of all stripes and can attest that even the most skeptical discover personal and professional value in the experience. At one multinational corporation, we worked with a senior lawyer who characterized himself as “the least likely person to ever find this stuff useful.” Yet he became such a supporter that he required all his people to do the program. “I have never read a self-help book, and I don’t plan to,” he told his staff. “But if you want to become an exceptional leader, you have to know your leadership purpose.” The key to engaging both the dreamers and the skeptics is to build a process that has room to express individuality but also offers step-by-step practical guidance.
The first task is to mine your life story for common threads and major themes. The point is to identify your core, lifelong strengths, values, and passions— those pursuits that energize you and bring you joy. We use a variety of prompts but have found three to be most effective:
  • What did you especially love doing when you were a child, before the world told you what you should or shouldn’t like or do? Describe a moment and how it made you feel.
  • Tell us about two of your most challenging life experiences. How have they shaped you?
  • What do you enjoy doing in your life now that helps you sing your song?
We strongly recommend grappling with these questions in a small group of a few peers, because we’ve found that it’s almost impossible for people to identify their leadership purpose by themselves.

How do you put your purpose into action?


Clarifying your purpose as a leader is critical, but writing the statement is not enough. You must also envision the impact you’ll have on your world as a result of living your purpose. Your actions—not your words—are what really matter. Of course, it’s virtually impossible for any of us to fully live into our purpose 100% of the time. But with work and careful planning, we can do it more often, more consciously, wholeheartedly, and effectively.
Purpose-to-impact plans differ from traditional development plans in several important ways: They start with a statement of leadership purpose rather than of a business or career goal. They take a holistic view of professional and personal life rather than ignore the fact that you have a family or outside interests and commitments. They incorporate meaningful, purpose-infused language to create a document that speaks to you, not just to any person in your job or role. They force you to envision long-term opportunities for living your purpose (three to five years out) and then help you to work backward from there (two years out, one year, six months, three months, 30 days) to set specific goals for achieving them.