Purpose in leadership

Chris Underwood reveals the results of research into purpose in leadership

Organisations and individuals alike need to rethink their approach to leadership. Photo credit: Fotolia
The notion of leadership and what makes a great leader has long fascinated the academic and business world alike. Researchers and practitioners have identified a vast array of leadership theories and frameworks to help us identify, select and train leaders.
Ideas such as ‘ethical leadership’, ‘authentic leadership’ and ‘values-based leadership’ have been well received and much discussed, but they are largely concerned with describing the characteristics of leaders: how they behave, think and feel, rather than successful outcomes and the role an organisation can play in achieving them.
As such, there remains some dissatisfaction that existing theories do not fully explain leadership success.
While the notion of purpose is not a new one – it has been discussed at length in academic and business circles – the role it plays in how leaders define success has not been explored in-depth to date. 
Taking a new approach
New research, the result of an academic-expert practitioner collaboration, looks to provide a clear, evidence-based foundation in understanding the processes and characteristics involved in leading with purpose, and how leaders with purpose define and direct activity to ensure organisational, follower and personal success.
It set out to identify what a sense of purpose means in the context of successful leadership, and use this understanding to develop a model of leaders with purpose, starting with the sense of purpose as the driver and goal to which success is referred.
This novel research came about after Adastrum Consulting approached Kingston Business School with issues it had seen emerging in the field, and, as a result, Kingston’s Wellbeing at Work Research Group was able to work with senior leaders in a variety of industry sectors to elucidate what those issues were. 
A three-staged approach was used to develop an understanding of leading with purpose.
  • A comprehensive review of academic and practitioner literature was conducted to identify what is known about purpose in leadership. A systematic search identified over 100 papers; these were reviewed and considered in the development of the theoretical model of ‘leaders with purpose’. This review identified that while there is a vast body of literature that refers to one’s sense of purpose, little attention has been given specifically to purpose in leadership. Some elements of ‘purpose’ are embedded in existing models, such as authentic, ethical and values-based leadership, such as drawing on established beliefs. However, these approaches are ‘style’ theories, defining static characteristics required in a leader to be successful. 
  • A focus group with practitioners was run to gain an understanding of how leaders with purpose are defined by business leadership experts. The themes raised here were less concerned with the sense of purpose, as identified in the literature review, but focused on the characteristics that differentiate those who lead with purpose and those who do not, and the personal and organisational factors that facilitate or mitigate success. 
  • Structured interviews with senior leaders from across the consulting, media, technology, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, data, legal, education and publishing industries and including those at the executive level, functional heads and P&L owners. These interviews were to identify, confirm and validate themes identified through the literature review and focus group; and to differentiate between the attributes, behaviours, thought processes and emotions of leaders who act with purpose, and those who do not. 
Key findings
As a result of this approach, a sense of purpose can now clearly be defined as:
“A meaningful mental model that provides a reason for being and a guiding set of personal goals and objectives. A sense of purpose provides clarity of direction, unifying people to operate beyond their business objectives. A sense of purpose evokes passion and commitment; it makes sense of the world and the person’s role within it.”
The results of the research broke new ground for a number of reasons. Perhaps most revolutionary, the research and resulting model show that a sense of purpose, not a specific set of characteristics, is the key to successful leadership. However, characteristics as well as timing and context can act as barriers or facilitators to purpose. For example, characteristics long associated as being key to good leadership, such as being upfront, honest and consistent, are considered to be facilitators of purpose. 
What does this all mean for businesses looking to develop the leaders of tomorrow or individuals wanting to take on leadership roles? 
Key considerations 
Developing a sense of purpose
The research shows that a sense of purpose is created throughout life’s journey and encapsulates one’s personal values, goals and identity. This allows the leader to see meaning in their purpose; meaning that often comes from having overcome significant challenges and as a result of being influenced by significant others in their life and career to date. A sense of purpose, is personal, internalised and self-imposed, it cannot (like goals and objectives) be given to you! 
Think about how you define success
What is distinctive about this research is that the focus begins with understanding how leaders with purpose define success, and how they use this as a means for guiding their approach and against which they rate their progress.
A leader with purpose defines success in terms of the legacy they will leave, the impact they intend to make in achieving both financial and business objectives and more widely in terms that impact at the team, organisational and stakeholder level. A leader with purpose is also concerned to align their own personal values with their own definition of success, and achieve a sense of meaning and wellbeing in attaining their goals.
Don’t focus on specific characteristics
Instead of being reliant on a set of specific characteristics, the new model clearly shows that success in leadership is dependent on conceptualising purpose and having the facilitators in place to realise this. However, a leader’s sense of purpose is much more likely to translate to success if certain key facilitators are present – such as behaviours. As such, key characteristics, such as being transparent, consistent and passionate are important. 
Recognise the barriers to purpose
A leader’s sense of purpose is also much more likely to translate into success if certain barriers are overcome, which exist both internally and externally to the person. These can include limitations of the job role, such as a lack of overall responsibility; limitations of the organisation such as a complex structure, unsupportive culture or lack of focus and limitations of the team including inadequate resources and calibre, and other external factors such as the economy. 
Appreciate that a sense of purpose is time-bound
The findings also highlight that a sense of purpose is time-bound and there will come a point when a leader’s purpose within a role is fulfilled and their job ‘done’. To remain successful and effective, they need to either find a new sense of purpose, which may come through a promotion or new role or exit the organisation and find it elsewhere. This obviously has huge implications for how leaders view their current and future roles, as well as succession planning in general. 
Final thoughts
What this research highlights is that a whole new approach to identifying, assessing and validating success in leadership is needed. For too long the spotlight has been on specific sets of static characteristics and a focus on ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’, without taking into account the vital role that a sense of purpose plays. Yet this model clearly shows that success in leadership is dependent on a clear sense of purpose. 
As such, organisations and individuals alike need to rethink their approach to leadership, to include a renewed focus on the importance of purpose and providing facilitators and removing barriers to success. 
About the author 
Chris Underwood is managing director at executive search and talent advisory firm Adastrum Consulting. To find out more visit www.adastrumconsulting.com


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