Why Leadership Purpose is Important and how to find it

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The impact of Covid-19 has made many of us stop and think about what is important to us, both professionally and personally. Are we heading in the direction we really want or following others’ life and career expectations? Does what we ‘ought’ to do push us off course from finding our true leadership potential?

Take a breath and take the time to find your real leadership purpose: your why for doing what you do. Click To Tweet

This can give you the sense of direction you need – a compass to help you cut through the distracting noise of your own and others’ assumptions, giving you the energy and resolve to navigate the career headwinds ahead.

Journey with purpose

You may have a plan, a map of how to get to where you want to go, but you also need a compass, telling you where your true north is – why you are doing it. We can put up with a lot of ‘what’ if we know why. So we need to find our individual why.

Think of your individual purpose as an overarching sense of what matters in your life, as the Japanese concept Ikigai says, ‘a reason for being’.

Understanding your purpose is fundamental to being a good leader. Great leaders are remembered for how they make you feel, yet we often focus more on what we need to learn and do as a leader rather than the real heart of leadership, which is who we are.

You have to find a professional identity that captures your purpose - having the map and the compass to build congruence between who you are and what you do. Click To Tweet

Avoid the pull of ‘ought’

Traditionally, people think of career-planning in a linear, vertical-up way, progressing up a set career ladder. But life isn’t a set, predicted path – just look at what this year has brought us.

So, you need to think more holistically. You don’t have to develop your leadership career in a set way or progress in lockstep with your peers. Having your own purpose – your compass – means you can navigate your own way.

Step back and look at your career story. Have you:

  • ‘Fallen’ into jobs or made explicit choices or bit of both?
  • Felt caught in your ‘ought’ life/career, maybe staying in a job too long because you didn’t want to ‘let people down’?
  • Felt trapped by career expectations of those closest to you?

You need to tune out some of the noise and look into what gives you that sense of purpose. Don’t compare yourself with others on a similar career path, or think you need to stay in a job so as to ‘not let people down’.

And understand that there are no straight lines in life. Sometimes you have to tack across to make headway forwards, so a ‘wrong road’ could well be a way to gain both positives and negatives that can power you on.

Navigate the challenges

Knowing why you do what you do can help steer you through the subconscious workplace assumptions and gender stereotypes many women face such as:

  • Belief that women value their careers less 

Be ambitious. Women start their careers with same level of ambition as men. A drop in their ambition is down to where they work rather than family status. And when a company invests in gender diversity everyone wins, with both women and men seeking promotion (BCG research 2016. Decoding global talent).

  • Getting stuck in the safety of our own technical competence 

Build a repertoire of skills.

  • Expectation that women do the ‘looking after’

Don’t feel the pressure to do the office housework.

  • Who me – a leader? 

Internalise the leadership identity. The aspiration to be a leader has to be nurtured, yet only 44% of the 3000 professional and college women in the KPMG Women’s Leadership Survey 2016 recall learning ‘Be a good leader’ when growing up, whereas 86% recall ‘Be nice to others’.

  • Leadership and gender role expectations tightrope

Navigate the competing authoritative leader role and caring gender role expectations. You can be both the competent, respected leader you are and your warm self.

State your purpose

Articulating your purpose gives you courage to live it.

Mine your life story to get a better understanding of what matters to you:

  • What did you especially love doing as a child, before the world told you what you should or shouldn’t do?
  • When do you feel most alive at work?
  • What do you really enjoy doing now that comes easily to you?
  • How would you describe your values and passions?
  • What are the two qualities you most enjoy expressing in the world?
McKinsey highlights nine types of individual purpose and you will likely map to some combination of these values:

Write your purpose down. Don’t worry about being a wordsmith, it just has to ring true for you. For instance, for one client it’s “To be the thorn in people’s side that keeps them moving” and for another it’s “to make people brilliant at working together”.

Act on it

Think about what is holding you back from living your purpose, call on others and put specific goals in place to get things moving. Click To Tweet

And remember, small wins are critical to sustaining progress, so keep track of them.

  • Refine your purpose with a clarifying paragraph and show a few friends and colleagues. Do they nod in recognition?
  • Set one-year and three-year goals – what will you do and how will you do it?
  • Identify at least two people who will help turn your purpose into reality.

Take time now to understand the why of what you do, the purpose underpinning your career journey. Such a strong compass can then help you navigate to where you want to be and help you filter the challenges and opportunities on the way.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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