Purpose is Central to Meaning – Tony Frost

It is not a new idea but a critically important notion to grasp to understand the importance, as a leader, of creating meaning for those that follow you. Following cannot be mandated nor demanded. It is somewhat like respect in this regard – respect can only be commanded by the right kind and content of leadership. At the heart of this is whether one can answer the question as to whether the leader is projecting a dream, a future that resonates with the dream buried deep in the psyche of his/her potential followers.

This may not be a particularly easy concept to follow so let us try to make sense of it.

There is a continuum of reality for all of us. None of us would be motivated by any concept, product or idea if we were not able to perceive some meaning in it for ourselves. I was asked recently why people chase material possessions and when they do this why these same people never seem satisfied. This is because they are focussed on images in the material world that they feel best represent the self-image they wish to project. The problem with this is that there is always someone who has more ‘stuff’ than we do so we chase hard to show that we are right up there with the Joneses! The emotional part of our brain is the piece that keeps us motivated to keep chasing the dream.

This is why the car manufacturers put all the technical specifications right at the back of the marketing brochure and owner’s manual in the smallest font they can find because they know that what people really want to know is how this car will project the dream they have of their own importance – usually way beyond the reality! This is why we get badly into debt that we cannot afford.

If however we used our intellect and focussed on only the factual reality, our brain would tell us immediately that buying a new car is a dumb idea which we anyway we cannot afford and should not go and get deeper into debt with a bank which knows only too well that we are being driven by our inner core of emotion.

Processes, plans, facts and measurable features appeal to the intellect. This piece appeals to the part of the brain that assesses, analyses and categorises but has only limited impact on our emotive side…..

Benefits, opinion of celebrities, colours (real and imagined) are the food of emotion. This is where intuition and gut feel hold sway.

These concepts are very applicable to leadership – we will never motivate people in the long term by money – money will only give them a job and the ability to buy things, not meaning in their lives. Real deep-down emotional commitment and loyalty comes when people find meaning and purpose in their lives and their leaders.

Long term motivation and commitment is driven by emotions and intuition. It is this drives us to find meaning and it is meaning that people really seek in their life and careers – they dream of more than just money; they want to be able to feel that they are valued and are able to make an important contribution to something greater than themselves. When this is absent the only alternative they have is to chase money.

So it is on the meaning and purpose of the organisation which Leaders must focus. They must focus on the dream (The Big Reason Why the organisation exists); and not on the processes and products and targets of the organisation (What the organisation does).

Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs disrupted the existing paradigms by focussing on the reason for existence, the raison d’etre of their organisations. They did not focus on how things should be done, nor what the organisation is doing (its processes, products, structure). They focussed on their dream of the future, on why those organisations/initiatives exist – on the purpose of the organisation.

This kind of disruptive thinking and behaviour is essential for the creation of a continuously creative and vibrant culture of innovation and the most important question to ask is: “Why?”

Why do we exist?

Why do we do things this way?

Why should people support me and my ideas?

Why should people be enthusiastic about working here?

Most performance management systems are the antithesis of this approach. Mostly they are designed for control, not on liberation; on targets, processes and obligations not on motivation, emotion and purpose.

As leaders we need to make sure that we are being positively disruptive, instead of focussing on entrenching existing paradigms and systems we should be talking about the dream how we can collectively realise this dream!


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