Ron's Material Leadership Blog

It is my sincerest hope that the stories I share are helpful to others. I have experienced first hand that many people toil in obscurity, searching for answers, ashamed to reach out and ask for help. This blog will contain experiences and wisdom that I have gained over the years that I hope will offer guidance in dealing with some of life's challenges.

Why the name material leadership? If you are curious the answer is on my website.
The link on the side bar.

Lead well


Saturday, January 5, 2008

What if your purpose and your job do not align?

A few days back a friend read my posts on the subject of leadership purpose. Something caught his attention when I described the phrase constancy of purpose. He commented,

Constancy of Purpose presents an interesting conflict for me. I struggle with duality of purpose. My life's purpose is clear to me. Where I struggle is that my much as I enjoy and appreciate never more than a means for me to live my espoused purpose or pay the bills. My career is more or less apart from my purpose, not a neatly-fitting part of it. The obvious answer is to find a career more in line with my values and purpose, but that simply wont do when it comes to everyday life's reality. I enjoy my daily interactions at work and look forward to opportunities I have to lead people in faith, provide council or simply be the office purifier. Who can help me work this out? Any suggestions or comments are most welcome.”

So comment I will. This friend of mine is a very intelligent fellow, well educated, highly motivated, eloquent, energetic, and principled. His comments and questions cannot be taken lightly; he is struggling mightily with what he considers a duality of purpose.

There is no magic bullet here and idealistic statements have little worth for this conversation. My friend needs wise council, a clear direction in which to explore. He has a clear sense of purpose. I know because I tested him. He belted out his 30 second elevator speech readily. This man has spent some time discovering his purpose.

What are our options? As I see it they are limited yet here are some that need to be given consideration.

  1. Accept the duality and continue deriving meaning from external activities
  2. Find another job more closely aligned to his purpose
  3. Find meaning related to his purpose in his current role
  4. Develop a secondary purpose that will more closely fit to your role
  5. Evolve the role and organization to align more closely with your values and purpose

Accept the Duality = Status Quo

Even though the majority of working people do some form of this, it is hard to ignore the work of Gallup who have found that over 70% of workers are not engaged. Duality of purpose almost certainly will lead to some level of disengagement. Perhaps this is a chicken and egg story. Does disengagement arise from a misalignment of purpose or perhaps it is the other way round?

I read some interesting research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner who you may know are the authors of one of my top five leadership books The Leadership Challenge. They found a positive correlation between the degree of alignment in personal and organizational values with motivation and performance. If an employee has an alignment between their own values and those of the company they are highly likely to be motivated to higher performance. But what of purpose?

I believe the alignment of purpose, though perhaps less clear, can be similar. An organizations whose sole existence is to increase the wealth of their shareholders would be a poor fit for an individual whose life purpose is related to lessening human suffering, improving education for disadvantaged youths etc.

So perhaps there is an opportunity to look behind the fa├žade of the organization. By determining what it truly values, looking at it’s behaviors as well as its words, will give insight into how misaligned personal and organizational purpose are. A severe misalignment here requires a decision, should I stay and seek to fulfill my purpose externally reasoning I can accept what the organization believes. Alternatively must I leave saying I cannot be a part of this any longer.

Quit and Start Again

Choosing the latter path above will not necessarily be easy but does provide for a clear honoring of your individual purpose. This is the courageous choice. I caution not to enter into this option lightly. Preplanning and career searches prior to the decision point will make the transition less uncertain.

There are a number of excellent podcasts dealing with the preparation for and implications of this type of decision on one of my favorite websites; I highly recommend listening to these in advance of such a decision.

The benefit of this approach is the opportunity to seek out an organization whose purpose is more closely aligned with your own. To facilitate knowledge in this area it is advisable to conduct web based searches for keywords related to your purpose. Correspond with the types of organizations who seem like minded. Go as far as interviewing key members of these new organizations for further insight. Finally, taking on volunteer roles in your local community that are closely related to your purpose will not only help refine it but will provide needed experience and contacts in the field.

Dig Deep in Your Current Role

As a leader and manager I believe it is my responsibility to define the role I am in, in a way that will make my team and my organization successful. I do not conform and simply do what is expected, I look for a way to change the context of the role and achieve break through results. Why do I bring this up here? I believe that in any leadership role some ability to do this is available to the leader. As long as organizational priorities are achieved and people are respected, there is an opportunity to look for opportunities to live your purpose within the organization.

Say perhaps you are called to eliminate poverty and the associated suffering. As a manager you could look for ways to partner with local institutions that deal with the poor and provide them a limited service through your organization that helps them and provides you and your team a chance to practice their skills. You could get involved with product development efforts to develop lower cost items that would benefit the poor.

Alternatively you could follow the organizational value chain to its logical conclusion to see what people / groups most benefit from your products and services. If organizational decisions take directions that will adversely affect these groups you could act as their advocate explaining the benefit to the community of continued support.

A Backup Plan / Purpose

This concept is closely related to the previous one. The reality of purpose is that we often define our purpose in rather high level ways. Kind of like looking at a farmer’s field from a 727, we see the ground from 30,000 feet. There are not many details just shapes, colors, shadow and contour. Well we can use this to our advantage by seeking to refine our purpose and identifying a subset that can be achieved while at work. The employee who wants to serve the poor might start with the working poor within the organization and mentor them in skills that will help them grow and succeed.

Change the Context

One of the great leadership theorists of our time, Warren Bennis, made this plea in his book On Becoming a Leader. Similar to the argument made above in redefining your role in the organization, there is another option, change the organization. Well yes I did say something about avoiding idealism at the outset, okay, yet there is a distinct possibility with the right groundswell of support and correctly executed influence strategies the culture and ultimately purpose of the organization could be tweaked.

Not an easy undertaking and frankly you would be lucky to move it even marginally. Yet if your purpose was not far removed why not, why couldn’t you undertake this? We are talking leadership purpose here after all. This is the role of a leader to define a better future state and help people want to travel there. The beauty of this option is that as you continue to have you and your team achieve their required commitments, this long term modification will engage you and will undoubtedly leave little room for thought on the degree of misalignment. You would of course be engaged with the purpose of trying to change it!

That’s all

Lead well


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Thoughts on a Recent Read

The Dip by Seth Godin

This was the first of Mr. Godin’s books I have read and I must say it will not be the last. I enjoyed this book and found its message wise and on point for our age. The premise of the book is that there is a time to quit a role, project, effort and a time to stay. When we have the opportunity to be the very best and are willing to pay the price, it is time to stay. When it is clear that staying will result in mediocrity or worse yet (Mr. Godin’s term for a dead end) a cul-de-sac, it is time to move on to something where we can be our best. The dip is the place in between. The place where we face opposition, adversity and discouragement. It is here that many wrongly chose to give up when greatness is not that far away for the brave souls who persevere.

Complexity: Low

Length: Short

Compelling: Very much

Worthwhile: Definitely