Is Every ‘Purpose’ Okay? Can a Purpose be Wrong?

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With purpose being all the rage these days, it’s normal to start hearing about wild and crazy purposes being bandied about. On one end of the scale, you’ve got grand missions like:

  • “To stop Ocean Plastic by gathering a billion people together to monetize waste while improving lives” (The Plastic Bank)
  • “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” (Tesla)
  • “To make sustainable living commonplace” (Unilever)
  • “Creating happiness through magical experiences” (Disney)
  • “Helping people on their path to better health” (CVS — check out my podcast with CMO Norm de Greve)
  • “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” (Starbucks)

Purpose needs to be coherent, differentiable and uplifting

It’s not because you have a big purpose that it necessarily drives the business and results, but the ambition is systematically to do good at a bigger scale and beyond your immediate stakeholders. You’ll also find on the other end of the scale, banalities or rather empty statements that can be self-serving, undifferentiated, and entirely uninspiring:

  • “Profitable growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment.”
  • “Create value for shareholders through the energy business.”
  • “You can’t do that if your staff and customers don’t care.”
  • “We will continue to build a corporate culture that respects and values the unique strengths and cultural differences of our associates.”

You also have to make money

Can you succeed without a purpose? Of course. Many people do it. I listened to a rather well-known podcast the other day where the guest suggested that any purpose is fine. She said that if your purpose is to make money, that’s fine. In fact, she said that part of her book’s purpose was to debunk the need for a high and mighty purpose. She said,

“We got so wrapped in this fallacy that purpose is everything when for some people it’s really not anything.”

For this post’s purposes, I choose not cite the podcast and guest because I’m basically appalled at people who think that all purposes are okay. It’s as if it’s ok to throw ethics out the window in the pursuit of the purpose of money. Where she’s right is that the word “purpose” doesn’t necessarily mean being high and mighty. However, purpose in business is no longer as prosaic or base as making money. It’s sort of like suggesting that, under the guise of meaningfulness, one could be allowed to be mean.

What is purpose?

Admittedly many people are in business or at work just to get a paycheck. THAT is fine. However, it tends to be energy draining. It’s just a means to pay for things. From the mercenary banker who wants another country home to employees who must punch their time cards to be able to put food on the plate, the nature of the time spent at work is entirely pragmatic. It obviates the point made by Dan Pink in his book Drive that people are not motivated (over the long-haul) by money. Making work meaningful, as Caleb and I described in Futureproof, is inspiring. And purpose — to be motivating — needs to be meaningful, ideally to all the key stakeholders. Meaningful doesn’t necessarily mean being positive. Meaningful is literally about being full of meaning. Sense. The point is for the stakeholders find a meaning and attribute a sense that resonates for them personally. You know you have a real #purpose when you can answer this question: how would the world be worse off if you disappeared? Click To Tweet

This is how purpose uplifts and drives a significant competitive advantage that taps into your stakeholders’ discretionary energy

Writing purpose that leads to profit

Yet, mission and meaningfulness must also co-exist with making money, otherwise, of course, your business will serve no purpose, as I covered in post I wrote in 2016, explaining how meaningfulness and money are entirely compatible. So, is it ok to be purposeful about making money?

Absolutely.

But there’s a line to be drawn and/or a consequence when your purpose is reduced to making money. This means involving your ethics. For starters, take the blanket test: if everyone did it, what would happen to the world? Conversely, it’s no good setting up a purpose that is so high and mighty that it’s completely unattainable and/or unbelievable for your organization to achieve.

Purpose is tied up with your legacy

More personally, as a leader, it’s useful to consider how do you define success. It’s always an interesting — if not leading — question to ask. I like to tie up my vision of success and purpose with legacy. What is the reach of your legacy? Is it self-serving (you, your name and/or your family) or does it move beyond your perimeter, such that you are serving and helping a wider community? 

On the question of defining, the guest in this podcast I mentioned above went on to say…”If success is written by everyone else, is defined by everyone else, it isn’t going to make me happy.” On this I agree. However, she then explains: “What does success mean for me? It’s what would make me happy.” In other words, it’s rather self-serving and revolves entirely around her.

When it comes to purpose, the question you need to be asking yourself is: “How can I make the world [around me] better off than when I turned up?” 

The host on this show replied rather vapidly: “One of the real challenges is that everybody is saying: Find your purpose…I don’t think you decide what your purpose is. I think it kind of finds you…” Wrong again. You need to go out and craft your purpose with intention. You don’t tend to stumble upon your purpose (unless you are supremely lucky) any more than you stumble upon a legacy. You make it happen. 

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