Purpose beyond Profit

[Chris Nel wrote this piece for the April 2007 Tom Peters Times newsletter, and it got such a great response that we decided to reproduce it for our blog readers.—CM]

As an adult, I have lived and worked in three types of organisations. In the military as an officer, in a large corporation as an area then regional operations manager, and now in a small consulting firm as ... well ... a jack of all trades! Only one of the three, in my experience, has suffered significantly from a disabling lack of clarity of purpose ... I believe there is a link between this and the fact that most large corporations "Fail to achieve their potential."

As the father of a three-year-old boy, I dread the day he announces that he wants to invest his talent, time, and energy into—a large corporation. I believe that "large" is doomed to mediocrity not due to size, but because of the inherent inability of "large" to generate a strong sense of common purpose in the organisation beyond making money for its stakeholders.

I believe that we as humans search for a meaningful purpose in everything we do. We are at our very best when we find it. My simple business hypothesis is based on the fact that when humans are at their best (i.e., are purposeful) they run/work in extraordinarily successful businesses. So it turns out that the leader's primary job is not to be a clever strategist or a brilliant technician (let alone control freak) but to help people find a clear sense of purpose (not revenue targets!) in the work that they do. Profit will follow from this, not lead it.

For many, despite the material perks and relative comfort, corporate life adds up to the kind of purposeless existence that I would hate anyone I cared about to live in. (Doubt this? Please read The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out—The Shocking Truth About Office Life by David Bolchover.) Abraham Maslow would say that in the absence of a stronger sense of shared purpose, self-interest (i.e., anything from survival to self-actualisation) prevails in decision making. You may well observe this in the behaviours of those around you? The converse of this is illustrated for us daily in a terrifying way by the suicide bombers.

If you believe, as I do, that everyone comes to work wanting to do a good job, you have to question why they (we!) tend to underperform as leaders in getting people to strive for a common aspiration. Unsurprisingly, I get a strongly defensive reaction when I talk about this to business leaders. A typical retort is "Yes, but who is leading me?" To me this reply brought into sharp relief the burden of leadership. As a leader you have to be a self-starter on purpose. Finding meaning where none is apparent. You can't inspire unless you are inspired. So, if you are not inspired it's your duty as a leader to discover it or disappear.

If you can't/won't do this, the vacuum of purpose caused by your poor leadership will be rapidly filled with the self-interested behaviour of those around you. Their purpose at work becomes self-promotion by playing the corporate game. Winning looks like promotion/pay raises. Their colleagues become "the enemy." Their boss (you) becomes a gatekeeper to be manipulated. (When did you last hear the unvarnished truth from them?) Talking a good game, burying the truth, diverting blame, not making the decision, exercising the power of the org chart, etc., etc. Of course, I'm exaggerating to make the point. But not by much. Strip away the thin veneer of civility by announcing post-merger job losses, for example, and unleash the dogs ...

Here's another reason "large" is doomed. Large corporations are ideally structured to insulate the individual from any sense of anxiety about the market in which they operate. That's always someone else's problem. In doing so they fritter away one important opportunity to align their people. Making the competitor threat feel more real will drive people to be more collaborative & entrepreneurial. They will start to fear the competition more than the boss. That's a good thing.

I'm not suggesting we should align people with fear. History has proved this to be a short-term strategy. For centuries, politicians have exaggerated the threat (nuclear annihilation and terrorism to name two contemporary examples) to their nation at the same time as offering a solution to that threat. It makes us malleable subjects, not free citizens. However, we eventually rebel. Watch out, George II, Tony, Gordon, et al.

Far more powerful and enduring is to align people with a purpose beyond profit. A hope that their endeavours at work are meaningful in the big scheme of things. It's not as if we are short of opportunities to make positive changes to our world, is it!