Over the past decade, leaders in business, education, and the social sector have become more interested in the development of purpose. Leading social entrepreneurship incubator Echoing Green hosted a movement-building Purpose Summit, the John Templeton Foundation sponsored a nationwide scholarship program to encourage youth to write purpose-inspired college essays, and the AARP began a big push to encourage “encore” purpose-focused second careers. Despite this increased focus on purpose, our organizations are sorely lacking leaders who are aware of and deeply connected to the purpose behind their work.
We believe this is in part because our culture conflates being mission-oriented with being purpose-driven. A mission is the what you’re trying to accomplish, and a purpose is the why. Toms founder Blake Mycoskie says the company’s mission is to sell shoes, but his purpose is to provide free footwear to people in need. Apple’s mission centers on being a leading computer company, but Steve Jobs’s purpose was to create beautifully designed, innovative tech products. Clearly the why and the what are two different things.
More specifically, Bill Damon, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and author of Path to Purpose defines purpose as “a long-term, forward-looking intention to accomplish aims that are both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” Purposeful leaders act in ways that are personally meaningful and socially beneficial.
As Simon Sinek notes in his bestselling book Start with Why, most people know what an organization does, but few know why they do it. In other words, most purpose-driven leaders can articulate their mission–but many mission-driven leaders cannot articulate their purpose. As a result, our culture is inundated by leaders who do not approach work from a place of purpose, and this can be problematic. Leaders not connected to the reasons behind what they’re trying to accomplish are more likely to get distracted by novel trends, to give up when the going gets tough, to be viewed as opportunistic by customers and employees, and to avoid taking risks that can lead to innovation.
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, offers a good example of a purpose-driven leader. He is a dedicated nature lover who, in the late 1950s, started building climbing gear for a few people in the Yosemite mountains. Today, Patagonia is a $200 million dollar company, widely recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability. The company’s success is particularly noteworthy in light of some of the purpose-driven decisions Chouinard made along the way. Early in Patagonia’s history, the company stopped making pitons, the metal spikes climbers hammered into rocks–and a mainstay in the business at the time– because they damaged the environment.
Later, Chouinard took a significant risk by switching his company’s clothes to an organic cotton line. This required sourcing new products, building a new supply chain, and raising the cost of his clothing. Both moves were good for the planet and aligned the company’s work with Chouinard’s own sense of purpose, but had he been only driven by the bottom line, Chouinard likely would not have made these choices. They were costly in the short run, but they helped Patagonia thrive in the long run. The company continues to make news today as, consistent with its leader’s focus on environmental causes, it fights Trump’s latest move to shrink Bear’s Ears National Monument.
Tyler Gage offers another powerful example of a purpose-driven leader. Cofounder of Runa–a fair trade tea company developed in partnership with indigenous communities in the Amazon–Gage is committed to helping indigenous farmers live fuller lives and protecting the Amazon environment. Today, just eight years after its launch and his graduation from Brown University, Runa is sold at 8,000 stores across the country including in Whole Foods, Safeway, and Amazon and is doing more than $10 million dollars in annual sales. In his new book, Fully Alive, Gage painstakingly documents the challenges he confronted in building the company, and he attributes his unwavering commitment to Runa to his initial purpose. Tyler’s story demonstrates one key finding that we have learned from research: Leaders with purpose are more likely to succeed.
Studies find that individuals like Chouinard and Gage, who are aware of and deeply connected to the why behind their work, tend to be effective leaders who are likely to be satisfied with their careers and their lives outside of work. As purpose-driven leaders, they are likely to inspire purpose-driven employees. A study by Joyce Bono and Timothy Judge found that when leaders are connected to a personally meaningful purpose, employees are more likely to connect to a higher purpose as well, and this is significant because as Brent D. Rosso and colleagues note, employees who find meaning in their jobs report being more motivated, engaged, empowered, and satisfied with their work.
Today’s young workers, more than any generation before, demand a sense of purpose in their jobs. Studies show that finding purpose in their work is a critical factor for millennials and key to helping recruit, retain, and inspire a younger generation of workers. If you are a leader trying to recruit top millennial talent and you are not prioritizing the creation of purpose for your employees, you are going to miss out on some of the most coveted people on the job market. As a member of the millennial generation, one of the first questions my friends ask when joining a company is: “Is this work going to make the world a better place? And if so, how?”
We are often amazed at the level of pressure that leaders face on a daily basis–from bullish investors, disgruntled employees, or detractors on social media. It is so easy to always do, and never take time to connect with why you are doing. But it is during those deep, sometimes dark, reflective, and connected moments that purpose-driven leaders make their wisest and best long term choices.
What Concrete Steps Can You Take To Connect With The Why And Purpose Behind What You Do?
Clarify your purpose: Why did you start this kind company? What were you hoping to accomplish? What was your purpose? What values and beliefs undergird that purpose, and how do those values influence the way you lead at work? The way you live at home? Are there opportunities to better align your personal and professional aims and values?
Plan time each week, month, or each year to reflect on your why: It is essential for purpose-driven leaders to make time to step back from day-to-day responsibilities and check in with themselves. Both Tyler and Yvon tout the benefits of planned time off to connect. Yvon takes regular wilderness trips to connect with the natural world; Tyler frequently visits the Amazonian communities his work supports.
How to do it: Pick something that helps you unplug and reconnect with your values: fishing, backpacking, writing, meditating, or some other activity. Put it on your calendar, and don’t bump it. Before you go into this time, have a clear intention for what you hope to get out of it.
Share your why with your employees: Although most employees can readily recognize the what behind your company, few may be able to articulate the why, and as Sinek points out, employees only connected to the what will show up for the paycheck, but employees connected to the why will give their blood, sweat, and tears to their work. Make this a two-way street as well: Encourage employees to share their own reasons for working for your company. And make this an ongoing conversation, not a one-off PR stunt.
How to do it: To communicate with his employees, Brad Rencher, senior vice president and general manager of Adobe’s Marketing Cloud, created a weekly vlog modeled after Zack Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns. He calls the show Bradchat, and he uses it to conduct informal interviews with other Adobe leaders and to share with employees the company’s strategy and purpose. Employees can share comments, send emails, and participate in online forums; other leaders share information through internal newsletters and memos. However you do it, be sure to make your company’s why very clear. Be honest about how well the company is making progress toward it.
Connect with your end users or customers: Once we get to a certain level of leadership, we often lose contact with our end users. When that happens, we can begin to lose track of our purpose. As the director of Project Wayfinder, it is easy for me to lose site of our end users–high school students–when doing the day-to-day work of emailing and calling our school partners. But when I take 30 minutes a week to connect with one of our students, I am reinvigorated, and I often learn a lot about our product at the same time. Taking time to talk to your end users is critical to understand what they like about your company, what they think your company stands for, and why they believe your company exists. Whenever I talk to students I better understand what Wayfinder means to them, what they like and don’t like about it, and how we can improve our curriculum.
How to do it: Schedule time once every two weeks to talk to your end users of customers. This will give you a sense of how clearly they understand your company’s why, and it may simultaneously remind you of your core motivations. Use your website and other marketing materials to communicate your business purpose with the people with whom you do business. Include concrete examples of how your purpose has influenced your business decisions, and provide regular updates regarding your progress toward your purpose.
Patrick Cook-Deegan is the founder and the director of Project Wayfinder, a leading purpose-learning program for adolescents. A former lecturer at the Stanford d.school, Patrick has been published in Stanford Social Innovation Review, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good, and Quartz.
Kendall Cotton Bronk is an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate School and author of Purpose In Life. She has been published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Applied Developmental Science, and Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Art and Sciences.
This story reflects the views of the authors, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.