We all have a sense of what a leader is – perhaps a parent, a teacher, a police officer, a boss, a politician; but in our still male orientated world a leader is likely to be “strong” and “decisive”. Often they will be described as “ruthless”. It is quite hard not to feel excluded from this cohort when most weeks we are not decisive even about which colour dustbin needs to be put out for collection.

When thinking about leadership it is sometimes easy to focus on the characteristics of people we know in leadership roles and not to consider the purpose of leadership. When we focus on the people we can edit ourselves out of contention, but if we focus on leadership purpose we can more often see the role that we can play.

In this piece I want to start the conversation with you about your leadership purpose. When we understand your leadership purpose we can understand how we prioritise your efforts, how you will want to elevate certain behaviours and repress others, how you will seek support (and what for) and how you will measure success.

My great friend and world class business consultant Ciaran Fenton uses this phrase frequently “The purpose of leadership is to create an environment in which people can shine.” I love the phrase and often use it myself with people I work with, but it is still missing detail. I have ten indicators of purpose for leaders and I will share them with you below. Before I do so however I want to stress one thing; purpose in the end will be a deeply personal endeavour. There should not be a cookie-cutter approach to something which in the end defines a large part of how we judge our own self worth. My commentary in a way is therefore rather superfluous to the bigger overarching point which is that finding your purpose is critical.

  • In most leadership roles relevant for this piece you will be an employee. Key to your success therefore is the alignment of your purpose with the organisation’s purpose. Therefore what is your organisation’s purpose? How are you aligned to it? How are you making your contribution?
  • How do you embody your organisation’s purpose? Are you critical friend, evangelist, sceptic, supporter, instigator, recruiting sergeant? What role do you have and is this role the role your organisation wants you to play? If your role has multiple facets, how do you narrate the differences so we can all see what you are doing?
  • How do your personal values align and converge with your organisation’s purpose? What is the tension between your evangelism and your critical faculties? How will you note divergence to your organisation? How does this impact your personal effectiveness? How will you choose to influence for more convergence? When does divergence become untenable for you?
  • What is your purpose with each individual member of your team? Not just your direct reports, but the whole team? How are they aware of your purpose with them? Do they have an opportunity to influence you and to renegotiate that specific purpose? What are your boundaries in the relationship you want to have with them and for them with you? Crucially are you prepared to be judged by the individual as to whether you have fulfilled your purpose with them?
  • What is your purpose for the team as a whole? How are they aware of your purpose with them? Do they have an opportunity to influence you and to renegotiate that specific purpose? What are your boundaries in the relationship you want to have with them and for them with you? Crucially are you prepared to be judged by the team as to whether you have fulfilled your purpose with them?
  • So far so operational… Now it gets really tricky. You are undoubtedly an elite performer. By any measure (intellect, earning potential, role, influence, etc) you can make a difference. You are now a role model and that fact will only become more obvious to you and to others as your experience deepens and grows. Every day you are observed and your approach, your manner, your words, your actions will be judged, often copied. Do you consciously act? Are you self aware? You need to be to be truly influential to help you fulfil your purpose.
  • To lead is in part an opportunity to make a difference, to change something for the better,to leave your mark. Therefore the questions you must have an answer to  are these:
    • What will be your significant, distinct and visible contribution to the success of the business?
    • What will be your significant, distinct and visible contribution to the careers of colleagues in the team?
    • What will be your significant, distinct and visible contribution to enhance the sustainable positive impact of the business on customers, suppliers, shareholders and local communities?
  • In all likelihood you will leave only one role into retirement, your last role. Every role before your last role will be a transition to your next new role. How will you leave? What will it say about you to those you leave behind and to those you are about to join? I don’t mean in terms of redundancy or resignation or being head-hunted, I mean in terms of your demeanour, your behaviour or character. I would like you to leave with your head high, your confidence intact and your purpose fulfilled as far as you could take it with all the ability and opportunity at your disposal.
  • It is conceivable that career today could easily last from 21 to 70. Nearly fifty years of toil. It will be foolish and wrong to expect that your career can be a step-by-step rise up the ladder of success. You will fail at some things, in some places you will not fit in and at other times you may carry with you into a new role or relationship the scars from a previous role or relationship. This is the same you, the same brilliant, high potential person that you have always been and always will be. So when you are tempted to judge others harshly, pause and consider their journey. I doubt very much they are incompetent, or do not care, or dislike you. They have just found this moment to be harder than some before it. You are a leader, can you do more than criticise them? Can you help them?
  • Still reflecting on the near fifty year journey we are embarked upon, you will need time to think, time to rest, time to recover, time to recharge before going again. Be kind to yourself. Plan your breaks, take them and rest. Be honest about your needs, be an advocate for your well-being, be a role model for others to follow.
  • Finally, I ask you to reflect on this thought that one person saved from mental illness is a whole family saved from the anguish and uncertainty of seeing a loved one falter, a career potentially interrupted and the livelihoods of dependants put into doubt. Just one person influenced to look after themselves better is perhaps the greatest contribution you might ever make. Make that your purpose too. You are a leader after all.

Take care. Paul