The Journey of Defining Purposeful Leadership

There are times in your life when you are bit more introspective than usual. For me, that usually happens when my life is in flux, when I’m facing major changes whether in the office or at home, or if we are experiencing a large event in our family such as a wedding, a birth, a baptism, or a graduation.  At those times, I find myself asking “why?” Why am I here, what value am I bringing to those in my workplace? What value do I bring to my institution?  And most importantly, what value do I bring to my friends and family? Am I the father, grandfather, and husband I aspire to be?  Perhaps others don’t follow these lines of thinking. But once more, I will ask your forgiveness to hang in there with me. I’m going to again use Shaeffer’s Forays to think this through.

I feel confident that my life experiences over the last several weeks would qualify in any person’s lexicon as the definition of “life changes.” First, I broke my heel 10 weeks ago.  My recovery is going well; but oh, I have learned so much along the way to recovery.   Secondly, I have accepted a new position and will be moving in about a month.  In and of themselves, either event would count as big changes.  With both cases, I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of care and kindness that I’ve received.  Truly, I’ve had the opportunity to see the best of others.  And this has lead me to ask myself about this purpose, my purpose. Why do I do what I do?  What is my purpose at work and at home? I hadn’t thought about writing a blog post about this until I had two totally separate experiences over the past few days that helped me to focus on purpose, and leading with purpose. Those two experiences were an article I read, and a lecture I had the opportunity to attend.

First of all, the article. Nick Craig and Scott Snook published “From Purpose to Impact,” in the May Harvard Business Review.  It provides a great start in defining what your purpose might be.  They start with the following quote from Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  There is that word again – “why.”

The importance of understanding your purpose as a leader seems obvious on the surface. But Craig and Snook report that “fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose.”

For professional continuing educators, it would seem that defining our purpose would be straight forward. It could be providing access to education or providing access to those who would normally not have access to education or extending the resources of our institution.  While all of these are true, it doesn’t encapsulate both my professional and personal life.  It speaks to our purpose in working with students but it doesn’t capture our purpose as a leader of an organization, as a member of a community, as a member of a family.

Thinking about my purpose and defining the purpose seems more salient as I begin to literally get back on both feet after a long recovery and as I start a new job.  I’m convinced that I can best serve myself and others if I can articulate my purpose.  For Craig and Snook, “the process of articulating your purpose and finding the courage to live it — what we call purpose to impact — is the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader.”

As a professional continuing educator, defining my purpose should be straightforward.  But it is more complicated. The authors remind us that “your purpose is your brand, what you’re driven to achieve….it’s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you and would miss most if you were gone.”   This is a timely question, what will people miss if I were gone. Selfishly, I hope they will miss my passion for the power of education, I hope they will miss my positive approach to our work, I hope that they will miss my advocacy for those who can’t advocate for themselves, and I hope they will miss the ultimate support I have for them.

In terms of drafting a purpose statement, this is a start.

While thinking about what others may miss seems like a good start, in many ways I perceive these as statements that look in the rearview mirror. They are not aspirational.  Craig and Snook suggest that while clarifying your purpose is critical for a purposeful leader and to complete the process one needs to “envision the impact you’ll have on your world as a result of living your purposes.”

While it has taken me a while to get to this point, I do believe that things do happen for a reason and it is left for us to figure out why “things happen.”  Remember I mentioned there were two items that helped me to focus on leading with purpose, leading for impact.  The first is the article from HBR, the second was attending a talk given by Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise ( He used a phrase that begins to capture my purpose: that my leadership purpose is “to increase others profitability.” At first glance, the use of “profitability” gives a sense that it is all about money.  Braun suggests, however, that it is about compensation and that compensation comes in three ways: money, mastery, and meaning.

Does “to increase others profitability” encapsulate my professional and personal purpose?

So for me, increasing others profitability is partially about money. We know that those who complete college do make more money than those who do not; I believe that by providing an example of good leadership and helping our staff reach their potential will lead to added responsibilities, possibly new jobs, and thus more money.  And we know that if we provide a loving, supportive home environment where we surround our kids with books and the tools to succeed, their chances of completing college and getting good jobs increases, thus their earning capacity is significantly advantaged. Again, one measure of profitability is money.

Compensation is also mastery. Our students acquire new skills and knowledge that helps them to “master” what they need in order to be successful.  Our staff, given appropriate professional development and support, learns new leadership skills and while I don’t know that you ever master leadership, they do become more effective leaders. And at home, if we model and encourage aspirational behavior to do well and also model civil discourse, our children’s behavior will be impacted…and ultimately, the behavior of their children, passing our legacy forward.

The third form of compensation is “giving meaning.”  The compensation of “giving meaning” carries with it the responsibility to extend our knowledge and skills into the communities in which we live.  It is reflected in those who complete a degree and are more likely to be civically engaged, more likely to vote, more likely to be involved with their community, more likely to be healthy.  For our staff, instilling the compensation of “giving meaning” results in developing those passions we have as professional continuing educators, advocating for those who can’t, providing access to education, serving the underserved and it is also reflected in our level of community involvement.  For our kids, our hope is that by instilling in them the compensation of “giving meaning,” we will support them in becoming caring individuals who understand the needs of others and are willing and ready to give to those in need.

Increasing others’ profitability may not be as prophetic or insightful or inspiring as I had hoped, but it does fit my life story of having empathy with those who need a hand up and helping others to succeed.   Hopefully this is a legacy that I’ve left and a firm foundation to begin my new career.

While this is a good start, I think that I’ve found that wrestling with defining my purpose is as beneficial as the actual purpose itself.  It is an ongoing process and one that I will need to go through periodically to help me answer a question Adam Braun asked at the end of his talk: “Do you want to live a life of success or significance?”






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2 Responses to The Journey of Defining Purposeful Leadership

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    Whoa fella, It would help me understand this epistle if I knew what’s happening to you, exactly. A new job? Where? what? when? Can you fill me in? Wow, I’m out of the loop here.

  2. Pingback: Creating a meaningful and rewarding workplace environment | Shaeffer's Forays

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