Why Purpose Matters

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

~ e. e. cummings

Are you willing to be led by someone who is not clear about their purpose? What if that person is you?

Mind you, I’m not talking about an objective. You can probably rattle off your objectives in two seconds. But do you have clarity about what purpose is leading you? If you’ve gotten this far, something must be working. So, wouldn’t it be nice if you had a clear idea of what that is? Face it: if you don’t know it, you can’t fully live it. And if you aren’t living it, you can’t lead from it.

It’s worth figuring it out. When you get clarity of purpose, you see the world through a unique filter, and this gives you the opportunity to be much more creative and innovative about how you lead in your life. It creates “meaning” from events and actions that, over time, shape your impact on the world. If you study the people you admire most in history, the ones who had the most impact—whether it’s Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, or Steve Jobs—you’ll notice that each operated from a very different view of the world compared to those around them, and then they got the world to see things their way.

You Are More Than Your Role

William Shakespeare reminds us of what our lives will consist of when we lack clarity of purpose. According to these well-known lines from As You Like It, we are all actors in a play.

All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Today our seven ages move from school days through college and graduate school, to the wisdom of senior roles, to retirement and inevitable death. The modern version of this play includes frequent flyer miles, stock options, and the possibility of staying on people’s cellphone “Favorites” list long after we are gone. No matter what costumes we wear, Shakespeare shows us what the unexamined life looks like, the journey without purpose.

The challenge for many of us is that our identity and sense of self are based on our role, title, profession, house, or car, which are all fleeting and fragile by nature.

I have spent most of the last ten years with people who have the big jobs. The problem is, many feel lost, struggling, with a sense of misplaced identity. They can’t say it because everyone else is congratulating them on their success. What they loved wasn’t the title or the job, it was the work they did and the impact they made. The more we see the impact of our work on others, the more meaning we get from it. The higher we go, the farther away we find ourselves from the people and things we impact.

Thus, clarity of meaning from within becomes even more important. No one can take your purpose away from you; it is your real identity. Purpose has deep resilience and staying power in a way that nothing else can or will.

Who Are You Beyond What You Do?

Purpose helps us answer this question. Purpose is the deep well that always has water.

We are brought up in the context of our childhood, culture, and education; much of who we are is the result of our circumstances. All the events that happen around us shape us. But eventually, we must ask ourselves: What is steering us on this journey as we go through life?

Leading From Purpose is filled with the stories of people who have rediscovered the purpose that is leading them and the impact that is the outcome of this discovery. Here is an excellent example of someone who used his purpose to step out of the script that had been handed to him.

Using Your Purpose to Step Out of Your “Script”

Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, was regarded as a high potential leader at Unilever (corporate owner of Ben & Jerry’s). He grew up in the ice cream business and was the fix-it guy, the one you go to when a turnaround is needed. Because of this, he quickly rose through the management ranks. By the time he reached the top job at Ben & Jerry’s, he had worked in over 30 countries and moved more times than he could remember. “Get it, fix it, and move on” was his modus operandi. After only 18 months at Ben & Jerry’s, he had taken a business that was in single-digit decline and turned it into double-digit growth. The iconic brand that everyone loved was back in the game and winning.

Now he was being groomed for the big prize of senior vice president of ice cream, overseeing operations in multiple countries—the one he had spent his whole career preparing for, the final ascension to the top ranks of a multibillion-dollar consumer goods company. Here he would get the significant raise, stock options, and global title, a role that defines success.

Only one thing stood in his way: his purpose. Timing is everything in life, and now that he was about to jump, he got the chance to clarify his purpose.

JOSTEIN ~ Helping people thrive in paradox and ambiguity for things that really matter.

Remember that the purpose statement is just a set of words. Yet these words are like a key to unlock a door to the room of purpose that leads each of us. For Jostein, his room of purpose revealed an important dilemma. The promotion would put him beyond doing work that really mattered and into managing others who would. In all his jobs, Jostein had saved peoples’ jobs, enabled groups to do things they didn’t believe they could do and developed those reporting to him who otherwise would have been left behind. He was happiest when all hell was breaking loose with no end in sight. Whether sailing in a storm or fixing a business that everyone thought was broken, Jostein was your man. Now he had found a stage to live his purpose, but it didn’t fit with the current plan.

Purpose doesn’t wait or care about the plan, it whispers in our ear and says…follow me. Leading isn’t about going where everyone else is going, it’s about creating something that hasn’t existed didn’t previously exist.

Jostein was used to creating five-year strategic plans solely as a means of funding his next year’s budget. Now his purpose was asking for much more: Stay for a long time and do something that matters. Ben & Jerry’s had a social agenda that was like no other. Climate change, fair trade, and non-GMO sourcing were all ideas that needed leading. If he stayed, they might really take off, and if he left they might falter as the new CEO spent twelve months just getting up to speed. Here was an opportunity to do something that really mattered.

Many of us have stood in Jostein’s shoes—do you follow your heart or your head? As my colleague, Bill George so eloquently says: 

“The greatest distance we will ever travel is between our head and heart.”

Listening to his purpose, Jostein did the one thing that no one expected. He turned down the six-figure raise, stock options, and everything else that went with the promotion and decided to stay at Ben & Jerry’s. Not only did he decide to stay, he bought a house for the first time in his life, having moved every two years up until then. He was all in.

Excerpted from the book Leading from Purpose: Clarity and the confidence to Act When It Matters Most by Nick Craig. Copyright (c) Nick Craig by Hachette Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.