Purpose is in our nature. So why do we often forget how important it can be to our professional lives?
When we’re motivated by what is right and when we can see how our work connects with a purpose greater than ourselves, this is when we can make the biggest difference to the people we work with and lead.
“From the moment that human beings first stared into the sky, contemplated their place in the universe, and tried to create something that bettered the world and outlasted their lives, we have been purpose seekers”.
Daniel Pink, Drive
Is it surprising that purpose is recognised as the thing that motivates us?
Purpose is part of our DNA. There’s something innately human about it, it belongs at our very core.”
Perhaps not. I think Daniel Pink is onto something here, that purpose is part of our DNA. There’s something innately human about it, it belongs at our very core.
Yet thinking back over the last 30-odd years, has purpose been all that important to us?
Guided by bigger forces, or under our own volition, we’ve structured our organisations (maybe even society at large) around metrics, performance and profit. These aren’t inherently bad. Profit enables us to do more, with more resources. But I wonder what we might’ve lost by focusing on how we do what we do, rather than keeping in mind why?
Knowing that you’re doing something that really matters is the emotional catalyst for positive change, for ourselves and for our organisations. It’s the thing that energises commitment to achieve something that means more than our own personal advancement, and that keeps engagement even when the going gets tough; particularly when the going gets tough.
Purpose and higher education
If any sector were uniquely placed to have purpose as the beating heart of all that it does, education is surely it.”
I believe that education is unique, especially when it comes to purpose. The pursuit to examine what we know, discover what we don’t, and share this with the wider world for the betterment of society moves us far beyond the bottom line. If any sector were uniquely placed to have purpose as the beating heart of all that it does, education is surely it.
Yet have we lost this sense of purpose? Of how what we do contributes to a greater good beyond our own gain?
Increasingly, younger generations are challenging higher education to articulate how we are making a positive difference in the world: ‘purpose beyond profit’ is the ringing claxon of Generation Z.
Take for example the recent climate change protests and the desire to harness knowledge to make positive, sustainable, change in the world. Or look to the group of Harvard students who, following the financial crash in 2008, sought to live lives that brought wealth beyond the buck:
“My hope is that at our 25th reunion our class will not be known for how much money we made or how much money we gave back to the school, but for how the world was a better place as a result of our leadership”*
former student at Harvard Business School and co-founder of the MBA Oath
If our current and future students are connecting to their greater good, how are we doing the same?
Maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Max’s book. To use our leadership to put purpose back into the heart of our own work in higher education, and into the hearts and minds of the people we work with and lead.
To do this, the knack will be for leaders to enable people to see how what they do contributes to the greater good. Motivation to do the right thing, that really means something beyond personal gain, will always trump external policies that tell you to do the right thing. This is how we shift the conversation from box-ticking, to real, impactful change that is owned and led by the University population.
But how do you do this?
If we can articulate what we believe in and why this matters, we help people understand us better.”
Rarely do we find ourselves in the kind of space that allows for this kind of reflection, creativity and strategising. Without this space, we get stuck in professional apathy, where’s it’s simply easier to carry on and do our jobs rather than feel that we are making a difference. But if we allow ourselves this time, we create the opportunity to find the connections between how we lead and how we can shape the culture, direction and ambition of our teams and institutions toward more purposeful outcomes for everyone.
Along with space, defining what our purpose looks like, feels like and how we describe this to ourselves and others is essential. If we can articulate what we believe in and why this matters, we help people understand us better. We start to build more empathetic relationships with one another, more trust evolves and we move beyond transactional working.
It’s in this environment – where we know our purpose and our narrative – we can start to build communities based on collegiality and commonality. Where we can gather together people to create a shared vision, and enable each of us to see how we fit into making this vision happen.
In a world where we seek to make a difference, it’ll be the leaders who can connect their purpose to their work, their mission to those of the people they lead, who understand and communicate their why – they will be the leaders who can change the world.
*Daniel Pink (2009) Drive, Canongate
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