The Case for Easing the Grip on ‘Purpose’ in Leadership

Our impulse to create and contribute doesn’t require a conscious effort. In fact, the magic happens when we trust this natural process and let it unfold. By simply giving space and trusting our instincts, we allow our contributions to flow more authentically and organically. I thought this sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by Matt Cooksey when he said, “We all have a natural impulse to create and contribute.” 

It got me thinking about whether ‘too much’ purpose in organisations might be hindering, rather than helping teams to create and contribute.

Our natural impulses can be obstructed by overthinking or over-labelling. When we try to forcefully define our “purpose” or set rigid boundaries around our creations, we inadvertently create barriers. This counterintuitive action stifles the very essence of our creativity and contribution.

Here are some ways I think leaders can relax their focus on purpose to allow for a more organic growth of creativity and contribution:

Encourage Autonomy over Alignment:

  • Allow team members to make decisions related to their work, fostering a sense of ownership and intrinsic motivation.
  • Shift focus from strict adherence to purpose to the empowerment of individual strengths and interests.

Cultivate a Broad Vision rather than a Narrow Purpose:

  • Communicate a broad vision that leaves room for team members to find their own path and meaning within it.
  • Avoid micromanaging how each role contributes to the larger vision, allowing for diverse approaches.

Foster an Environment of Exploration:

  • Create spaces where employees can explore ideas without the immediate pressure of aligning with an overarching purpose.
  • Encourage cross-departmental projects that allow for unexpected collaborations and outcomes.

Embrace Diversity of Thought:

  • Recognise that a multitude of perspectives can enrich the workplace beyond a monolithic sense of purpose.
  • Encourage team members to bring their unique viewpoints to the table, which may diverge from the prescribed purpose.

Practice Flexibility in Goals and Roles:

  • Set flexible goals that can evolve as team members make new discoveries and pursue novel ideas.
  • Allow roles within the team to be fluid, enabling individuals to contribute in varied ways as their interests and the company’s needs change.

Prioritise Learning over Purpose-Driven Performance:

  • Encourage a culture of continuous learning and curiosity rather than solely purpose-driven outcomes.
  • Celebrate learning milestones and acquired skills, not just goal achievements that directly serve the stated purpose.

Reduce Emphasis on Purpose in Evaluations:

  • Design performance evaluations to acknowledge creativity and initiative, not just contributions to the explicit purpose.
  • Offer rewards and recognitions for ideas and projects that may fall outside the conventional purpose narrative but add value to the organisation.

Highlight the Journey, Not Just the Destination:

  • Share stories and case studies that emphasise the creative process and teamwork, not just the end result.
  • Allow teams to pivot or take detours in their projects, which may lead to unforeseen but valuable results.

Create a Culture of Trust:

  • Build a culture where team members feel trusted to make decisions that are right for their work, even if it doesn’t immediately seem to serve the stated purpose.
  • Reduce layers of approval for new ideas, giving team members the freedom to experiment and iterate.

Reframe Failure:

  • Encourage a mindset where failure is not a deviation from purpose but a natural step in the creative process.
  • Offer support and refrain from punitive measures when well-intentioned initiatives don’t align perfectly with the purpose.

It occurs to me that leaders who master the art of balancing a clear vision with the space for individual creativity not only enrich their teams’ work experience but also often find that they cultivate a more resilient and innovative organisation. It’s about nurturing an environment where purpose is not a rigid boundary but a guiding North star – visible, inspiring, but not limiting the path taken to move towards it. 



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