he notion of leadership and what makes a great leader has long fascinated the academic and business world alike.

Researchers and practitioners have identifi ed 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.

one’s sense of purpose, little attention has been given specifi cally 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, defi ning 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 defi ned by business leadership experts. T e themes raised here were less concerned with the sense of purpose, as identifi ed in the literature review, but focused on the characteristics that diff erentiate those who lead with purpose and those who do not, and the personal and organi- sational factors that facilitate or mitigate success.


A sense of purpose provides clarity of direction, unifying people to operate beyond their business objectives

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 de- fi ne 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 defi ne 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 lead- ers with purpose, starting with the sense of purpose as the driver and goal to which success is referred. T is novel research came about after Adas-

trum Consulting approached Kingston Business School with issues it had seen emerging in the fi eld, 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 identifi ed over 100 papers; these were reviewed and considered in the development of the theoretical model of ‘leaders with purpose’. T is review identifi ed that while there is a vast body of literature that refers to

Structured interviews with senior leaders from across the consulting, media, technology, telecom- munications, fi nancial services, insurance, data, legal, education and publishing industries and including those at the executive level, functional heads and P&L owners. T ese interviews were to identify, confi rm and validate themes identifi ed through the literature review and focus group; and to diff erentiate between the attributes, behav- iours, thought processes and emotions of leaders who act with purpose, and those who do not.


As a result of this approach, a sense of purpose can now clearly be defi ned 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.” T e results of the research broke new ground for a number of reasons. Perhaps most revolution- ary, the research and resulting model show that a sense of purpose, not a specifi c set of characteris- tics, 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 con- sistent, 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 T e research shows that a sense of purpose is created throughout life’s journey and encapsulates one’s personal values, goals and identity. T is allows the leader to see meaning in their purpose; meaning that often comes

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