A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials: The ABC’s of Leadership: P is for Purposeful


“We all need something to believe in, something for which we can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. We need to feel that our life has meaning, that we are needed in this world.” Hennel Senesh

Just over a decade ago, I was given a death sentence after being diagnosed with leukemia. Thanks to the miracle drug Gleevec, which had just come off of clinical trial, what was considered to be a fatal condition became a chronic one.

I have difficulty responding when referred to as a cancer survivor because I did not go through the suffering that most cancer patients do. I did not have a single day of down time, and zero side effects usually associated with cancer treatments. Each day I take a single pill, which directly targets the cancer cells without harming the healthy ones.

Emotionally however, I did go through what most do, fearing the unknown and anticipating the terrible ordeals others have fought. Another dynamic was facing the reality that as there is a beginning, there is also an end, which caused me to reflect on my reason for being.

While I have lived a charmed and successful life, there was a realization that if my life were to prematurely end, my mark on the world would be insignificant. The day I came to that important, yet horrible realization, I cut a deal with the Almighty that, if I were made better, I would become a better person. I was made better and continue to try to be that better person.

This determination required me to reflect on purpose; and as Winston Churchill admonished, “we should be determined to live for something”. For me that something became helping to create a more civil society, where it is possible for every point of human interaction to be positive and constructive.

Much of the work I do today is helping organizations create psychologically healthy, safe, fair and productive cultures and climates. What continues to amaze me is the number of employees at all levels who don’t have a sense of purpose. In a study by Mental Health America (MHA), sponsored by the Faas Foundation, called ‘Mind the Workplace’, 74 percent of the 20,000 respondents, indicated that their work environment is overly focused on trivial activities and having overly bureaucratic company policies.

This staggering statistic provides a tremendous opportunity to address the productivity crisis. The World Economic Forum indicates that innovation is the key, which I support with this caveat. Unless people understand the purpose or ultimate aspiration of an organization, and how the work they do contributes to this, they are not likely to contribute to innovation and creativity.

When I am called in to help organizations improve performance, assessing the current state is the first step I take to understand if the conditions exist that are necessary for an organization to be successful in transforming into becoming psychologically healthy. The conditions are based on the research conducted on emotionally intelligent cultures. They are:

. Trust amongst members.
. A sense of group identity. (this means a sense of purpose)
. A sense of group efficacy.

I have found that these three conditions are related and interdependent, insomuch that without trust, purpose is not evident; and without purpose, there is no efficacy.

In conducting current state conditions, I ask sample individuals and groups what they are working on, and why. Again, it is amazing to me how many struggle with responding to this. Most people work in command and control environments, and just do what they are told to do, without understanding the why. For those few who understand the why, few of them are able to articulate how what they do relates to the overarching purpose of the organization. I have also found that of the few who do understand the why, even fewer of them feel empowered to challenge why they do what they do the way they do it. My research on this indicates that most people are afraid to ask these fundamental questions about what they spend the bulk of their time on. The reason for this fear is usually a lack of trust in leadership.
I enjoy relating the story of when President Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral in 1962, and asked people working there what they did. Most of them, being rocket scientists, gave him technical answers. When he asked a janitor what he did, the janitor answered, “Well Mr. President, I am helping to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to earth.” Just imagine if everyone who reports to you could give this type of answer.

Recommended reading on this story is a paper written by Andrew M. Carton at the Wharton School of Management called ‘How NASA Leaders Enhanced the Meaningfulness of Work by Changing the Meaning of Work’. In this he analyses how employees can see a stronger connection between their work and an organization’s ultimate aspirations.

Patrick Lencioni in his bookThe Advantage – Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business’ is a must read for leaders. This book is a very pragmatic guide on how to build cultures where purpose and trust are at the core of the equation. David Ramsey, a New York Times best selling author, nailed it in his review of the book, “Lencioni cuts through the corporate ‘Bull’ that creates a culture of stonewalling and feet -dragging, and shows leaders at every level how to build up a culture of productivity and communication.”

A psychologically healthy, safe, fair and productive culture is one where people constantly challenge – Why am I doing this? And if this can be satisfied – Why am I doing it this way?

Andrew Faas is the author of ‘From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’, and is a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University.

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