Tips to grow your leadership impact, through purpose

Something weird happened during the latest leadership retreat I ran. After spending the morning exploring the organization's purpose, we had planned to spend the afternoon helping members of the leadership team each find their own individual purpose.

I had designed an exercise where people worked in pairs to share stories about peak experiences they'd had in their lives, as a way to tease out what gets them up in the morning. Then, they'd work with their partner to articulate a first draft statement of their purpose.

I expected the newer leaders to struggle with this, as most said they'd never done this kind of thing before. I thought that the senior team would breeze through, assuming this would not be new to them. But I was wrong.

In just 30 minutes, most of the newer leaders came up with really insightful purpose statements, like "I hold space for others to do their best work" or "I bring calm to difficult situations to keep people safe". Yet, their bosses had a much more difficult time articulating their own "why".

At first, I couldn't figure it out. But after a few conversations, a clue emerged. It turned out that many of the senior team members didn't feel safe sharing their individual purposes with their peers. Of course, that opened up another whole other kettle of fish that they would have to tackle in the future.

But by the end of the exercise, most leaders were able to see and lean into the alignment between their own purpose and that of the organization – which would help focus and streamline their work in the future. More importantly, they discovered a new sense of identity and a feeling of power – a clarity and confidence they didn't have before.

The concept of purpose as the thing that guides all of your decisions and behaviour is not new. Simon Sinek popularized it ages ago.

What's new for me is that I am discovering that my coaching clients really can't make any progress on goals and challenges until they first get clarity on their purpose.

While that can be initially frustrating for them, as it seems to be slow, hard work, once we figure it out, everything else goes much quicker. Even really logical leaders who initially think that the concept of "purpose" is all airy fairy come to see that it's not just a north star that guides them, it's also the decision matrix through which all of their analyses about what to do should flow.

If you're anything like me with a broad range of interests and experience, narrowing your purpose down to one core concept can be a real challenge. After much work, I've come to see that my purpose is to help leaders remove barriers that hold them back so that they can create system change. Identifying "leaders" as the people I serve, "removing barriers" as my core activity, and "creating system change" as my impact gives me confidence and clarity in choosing projects and clients.

While there are a bazillion courses frameworks and exercises you can do to help you find your purpose, my favourite way to get started is of course through stories. They help us tap into emotion and reveal unexpected insights about what drives us. Here's an exercise you can do with a trusted partner to get started.

If you want to know more about why can you do any purpose matters, check out the power of why, or these other resources from the coaching platform Better Up.