Sign In
Thought Thursdays
Leading with purpose

Leaders seem to have a tough time nowadays, especially when the world in which we live is painted as a VUCA world, i.e. one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. How to know what to do and where to go, under such conditions, with a nation, a business or an organisation seems to require a double dose of leadership wisdom and courage. 

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing a number of South African CEOs and other executives as part of a collaborative research project. We were particularly interested in the challenges that these corporate leaders were facing. Their responses contained accounts of the impact of societal transitions on their organisations, whether nationally relevant from a post-apartheid point of view or globally initiated by the big shifts in political and economic power balances. From these challenges an important question emerges, namely how to lead and what decisions to make in the face of severe uncertainties and difficult trade-offs.

Whereas we are so often occupied with questions and theories about what leadership is, it may be more productive in the current conditions to change the question to what leaders in this kind of world are supposed to do, or even to ask what they are needed for. A hint in this direction came from Herminia Ibarra, the INSEAD professor in Leadership and Learning. Participating in a panel conversation at the 6th Global Drucker Forum in Vienna in 2014, she said, “Leadership is about facilitating the purpose of the organisation.” 

Ibarra’s point makes a lot of sense. Let us analyse its meaning. If ‘purpose’ points towards ‘reason for existence’, ‘facilitation’ means ‘making things easy for others’ and ‘organisation’ can be taken to refer to a team, a department, a company, a nation or a regional or global entity, what implications does this understanding then hold for the meaning that we ascribe to leadership?

If we accept that ‘facilitation’ goes to the heart of what a leader is supposed to do, I think we may get closer to an answer when we look at it from the perspective of those who are being led. What do they need leaders for? To this question, I’d like to offer three perspectives, namely a sense of identity, clarity of vision and process skills. Whereas ‘identity’ covers the deeper questions around who we are, what we value, and what keeps us together, ‘vision’ has to do with why we exist, where we are going and what we are aiming for. ‘Process skills’ mediate both identity and vision because they deal with the dynamics of how we get along, how we communicate, how we resolve differences, and how we determine direction, work out strategy and make decisions.

Once again this is easier said than done. In smaller groups or organisations it may be relatively easy to facilitate around identity- and vision-related needs, but it gets rather complex in larger settings when leaders bump against diversity challenges in terms of race, culture, gender or value systems. Vision, on the other hand, is hard to figure out in the face of VUCA-type dynamics, such as economic volatility, social instability, the unpredictable effects of global warming and climate change, and how these will influence the future of an organisation.

While it is already difficult to lead in the face of so much complexity, some leaders exacerbate the situation by causing more uncertainty, bringing more confusion, and causing loss of direction. Such leaders cause dissonance in the groups and organisations for which they are responsible. One can say that dissonance, from this perspective, is about being poor at facilitating identity and vision and finding the process paths towards both. Leaders who bring resonance, on the other hand, help us to work out a future that is desired and achievable, and help us to get along as a collective as we journey there. Resonance is about being in tune with the greater purpose and in tune with those with whom we collaborate in fulfilment thereof.

In their book Resonant Leadership, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee  distinguish three things about resonance, namely 

  • hopefulness, which is about seeing a future that is worth dreaming about, one that goes beyond mere material success, one that brings fulfilment and meaning for all;
  • mindfulness, which refers to thinking before you act, being aware of the impact of decisions and actions, going beyond short-termism and thinking about others, about the next generation, and about the planet and the environment; and
  • compassion, which refers to aiming at  the inclusion of others and what is good for them, and being connected with others and realising how you are dependent upon them.

So maybe we need to bring in a second aspect of purpose, a very personal one, namely the purpose for which a leader leads. From this angle we are looking for resonance between what the leader is needed for (by his or her team/department/organisation/nation) and why he or she has chosen to exercise the task of leadership. From this angle we are looking for intrapersonal drivers for leadership, ones that connect with the inner spirit of the one who leads. In writing about spirituality as the context for leadership, Peter Pruzan  distinguishes between different accents being placed by Western and Eastern cultures on the meaning and purpose of leadership. Pruzan argues that Western notions of leadership are about doing, performance, and success in measureable terms, whereas Eastern accents focus on the elements of being, wholeness, the person, the virtues and values of the person. I would argue that, from an African point of view, we should add belonging, relating and being part of a community as well.

In a balanced view, I would like to say that we need all three notions and we need them in a mature way. Should any of them become excessive it may derail the purpose of leadership, especially from an intrapersonal point of view, and cause damage to those who are being led. A leader with an excessive focus on doing may chase material gain at the cost of work-life balance for self and others. Being too occupied with personal fulfilment, on the other hand, may lead to self-indulgence and the neglect of the well-being of others. And when belonging becomes too tightly knit it may lead to group think and favouritism at the cost of inclusiveness, fairness and justice.  

Therefore, as leaders, the work that we have to do on behalf of others in terms of identity, vision and process is also work that we need to do with respect to ourselves. As leaders, we are not only responsible for facilitating the purpose of those whom we lead, but also for making sure that we are fit for purpose. Facilitating the purpose of the organisation therefore seems to go together with facilitating the purpose of self.

So what then is the work that we need to do with respect to ourselves? How do we facilitate the purpose of self? With respect to identity, the foremost question is whether we are experienced by others to be the same person, irrespective of where we are, or with whom we are. This is all about integrity. Integrity, we know, builds trust. It keeps suspicions about corruptibility from the door. It makes it easier to be followed. Therefore, an important question to ponder is whether I am the same person under all circumstances. 

With reference to vision we constantly need to think about what we live for, what we lead for, what we stay on in the group or organisation for? For whose benefit are we doing what? What is the greater purpose that we want to serve through our life and leadership?

With reference to process in as much as we need to help others through the challenges of getting along and the complexities of decisions and negotiations, we need to be able to distinguish between what is important and what is not, between self-interest and the greater good, and  between the wheat and the chaff. For this we need a set of guiding principles and a value system that is vibrant, consistent and resilient, constantly nurtured by caring practices and personal disciplines.   

A leader facilitates the purpose of the organisation through caring at the same time about the purpose of self. These two are connected.  Practising them in tune with each other does not make the task of leadership easier, but it makes it more authentic.

So do not be overpowered by the task of leadership, it is relatively simple: focus on identity, vision and process – who we are, where we are going and how to get there. At the same time, do not be deceived by simplicity – in today’s world leadership is a tough job and easier said than done.

There is a Latin proverb that says “It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself”.

Prof Arnold Smit
Director, USB-ED Centre for Business in Society

Email address: