Blog 2 of 6: Reimagining the context of work: Leading with Purpose

“Leadership is unlocking people's potential to become better.”  ~ Bill Bradley

How are purpose and leadership related? Great question, here’s what we think.

“Purpose without leadership is like a fish on a bicycle.” ~ Whitney Vosburgh
“Leadership without purpose is just management.” ~ Charlie Grantham

This series of blogs is about the interrelationships of two major factors. First, there is the continuum that grows from identifying what your purpose is to where that is lived out, and ultimately what you do to manifest purpose at work. Succinctly: Purpose, Place and Practice.

The other factor, which can be thought of as what is your relative social position in or to work organizations. There are many definitions of this organizational role. We are simplifying those dimensions to three categories: leadership, management and those independents we call ‘creative catalysts of change’. It’s a new category that we think plays the protagonist in the New Story of Work. In essence, these catalysts are those in our society who continuously practice creativity and invention.

It is not our aim here to engage in a definitive discussion of organizational structures. Our goal is to give you some conceptual tools to reimagine the context in which these roles bring purpose to life and to work. To us, it looks like this:

This blog focuses on Leadership, so let’s unpack our definitions for the first row of boxes. Purpose is the reason you are on this planet now. It exists to guide you by answering your existential question: Why? The purpose of leadership is to create a ‘shared positive purpose’ as a motivating force to transform the present into a desired shared future state. Much is written about innovation and, to a lesser degree, transformation, but both are often misunderstood. Innovation is the act of creation done to stay in place, today. Whereas transformation is the act of creation done to stay ahead tomorrow and long into the future. And everyone has a role to play in both innovation and transformation.

Whereas leaders point the direction, managers deal with the ‘how to get there’. Managers live in the present, operate by the rules, and manage the culture. They see that things are done right. These are the folks who make sure the railroad runs on time and stays on the tracks already laid down by their leaders.

Our independents – Creative Catalysts of Change – are a category often overlooked in the life of organizations. The world has evolved to the point that this group of people may offer the most ‘value-added’ to make human organizations sustainable in a fluid world. Independents create purpose and constantly renew their sense of purpose – they continuously invent and reinvent themselves, their work and world. They usually start from the inside and move out. But they can create tremendous tension. They are the grain of sand in the oyster that builds the pearl. For examples, disruptive start-ups are often snapped by large enterprises that lack innovation and transformation internally.

 Now, let us expand the basic idea that personal purpose manifests in different forms dependent upon the social role you play at work. Keep this 3X3 table in mind; we will continue to come back to it over and over.

Take me to your leader

If the purpose of leadership is to create ‘shared purpose’, how is that lived out in everyday work life? We believe the first thing is to draw a distinction between leaders and managers. Yes, there is a diabolical difference and many pundits talk about it – endlessly. And many without having ever having done either one.

It’s our observation that many people who hold leadership ‘roles’ really behave more like managers. That is these folks have objectives, not vision; and they minimize risk instead of taking risks like genuine leaders do. So, to be clear, let’s start with an agreed upon definition of leadership and management, let alone those pesky independents.

We don’t have to go far to find ineffective leadership

This is primarily due to the fact that people in positions of power often confuse leadership with management. So that we are clear about the difference, let’s redefine these practices in common language:

  • Leadership is the action of leading a group of people or an organization in the direction of a vision of a desired shared future.
  • Management is the process of dealing with or controlling people or things.
  • Independents are about creation outside the confines of conventional thinking and structures well beyond group think.

Part of the problem today is that most organizations are not led by purposeful leaders. According to Ross Ashcroft, Co-founder of Renegade, Inc.:

“The world is currently over-managed and under-led.”
Why is this distinction important? Simply because the sustainability of large organizations is becoming evermore dependent upon true leadership, not efficient management. In the emerging workplace things have become more uncertain, change has sped up, and customers have become notoriously fickle because they have free, instant access to a wealth of shared information, reviews and ratings.

This increased volatility in market demand requires companies to become more agile in running their entire business enterprise. This in turn necessitates leadership that can change direction and operations quicker than the competition, management that is just as agile, and independents that stay well ahead of the curve.

And to emphasize today’s importance even more, Bob Anderson, a well-respected leadership coach puts it out front:

“When direction and meaning are confined to Executive Leadership, value is minimized.”

And you can’t have direction and meaning without conscious purpose. Just why is it you are doing what you are doing? Answer that in 50 words or less. Or in 5.

 Leadership isn’t for everyone. Some people are content just doing things, not wondering about the ‘why’. Let us interject a personal story here. When Charlie was in the Army, every year Charlie’s boss had to write an ‘Officer Efficiency Report’. The classic line was “This officer is destined to go through life pushing on doors marked pull.” Can you imagine the image this brought up when you were being considered for a leadership position? Do you want a Manager who is always pushing against the tide, or a Leader who is taking charge and pulling your business into the future?

And then there would be the independent who keeps asking, “What’s the purpose of the door?”

Let’s take a step back here. In the introduction to this series we talked about the need for a New Story of Work. In terms of leadership this is the key distinction, the Old Story was always about ‘pushing forward’, over coming resistance, being aggressive, moving into the future. We would like to suggest that the New Story, which is only now emerging, is more about pulling the future toward you, surrounding it, encircling it. The Old Story is a divisive framework; the New Story is an inclusive framework.

How do you do it?

We believe making the Brand New Purpose of Work a reality is best served by recruiting talent with high leadership potential to begin with. Then smart organizations need to put in place a well-supported leadership development program. And these programs should have several integrated components.

We’d like to note that this type of leadership development used to be commonplace in large companies through the 80’s but has since largely disappeared driven by the false lure of quarterly results and faster turnover of senior management – again the Old Story of Work in operation.

First, how do you sort out high potential folks from those that really don’t see future leadership as their purpose and destiny? The answer is easy; execution difficult. Look for people who have already demonstrated leadership or impressive individual initiative. For example, in the public sector you have the Peace Corps and, more recently, AmeriCorps. And in the private sector things like code camps, hackathons and formal entrepreneurial training programs like GirlMade. These are the people who always seem to step up and volunteer to lead new efforts ranging all the way from product launches to the summer office picnic.

The second component of an effective leadership development program is a pathway to increasingly responsible jobs. Related to this is giving high visibility to high performers so you can insure continuity of leadership. Done right, there will always be a pool of people to choose from when senior leadership vacancies occur. Everyone always knows who should be placed in that next critical opening.

Back to the future: Purpose as a guiding North Star

Third, having formal individual mentoring and sponsoring programs where one-on-one relationships are developed. For example, we can all remember that one teacher, that one coach, that one professor, that one senior person who made all the difference in developing our direction. Asking leadership candidates to recall their experiences with mentors and sponsors can help you find people who have had prior positive leadership development experiences. And good past experiences can help inspire and guide future development actions.

A core action thrust for future leaders will be the process of transformation. Transformation is applied creativity that makes a long-term positive difference guided by a vision of shared purpose. A key task, then, for true leaders is to guide others towards this purposeful transformation – turn vision into action.

Lastly, the Purposeful Workplace will be looking for people who are actively engaged in ‘Self Leadership’ or ‘Strategic Personal’ development – constant discovery and rediscovery of purpose. This in itself is an evolving skill set. You see, in the new world of work, people won’t be able to depend on folks down the hall in Human Resources to assist them with their leadership development.

This blog has been about the ‘what’ of purpose and the New Story of Work, now we will tackle the intersection of Purpose and Place – where and who.