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Find your purpose

Chris Underwood

Chris Underwood, Managing Director at executive search and talent advisory firm Adastrum Consulting, discusses how their latest research with Kingston University redefines purpose in leadership

If asked to define something that all great leaders have in common, one might expect to hear words such as authenticity, vision or honesty. Yet new research shows that what may really be key to leadership success is a specific sense of motivation. So while Angela Merkel, Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela may not appear – on the face of it – to have a huge amount in common, they actually all possess a unique sense of purpose.   

The notion of leadership and what makes a great leader have long fascinated the academic and business world alike. Researchers and practitioners have identified a vast array of leadership theories and frameworks to help us identify, select and train leaders. Ideas such as ‘ethical leadership’ and ‘values-based leadership’ have been well received and much discussed, but they are largely concerned with describing the characteristics of leaders: how they behave, think and feel, rather than successful outcomes and the role an organisation can play in achieving them. As such, there remains some dissatisfaction that existing theories do not fully explain leadership success.  

New research, the result of a unique academic-expert practitioner collaboration between Kingston University’s business school and Adastrum Consulting, now looks to provide a clear, evidence-based foundation in understanding the processes and characteristics involved in leading with purpose. It also explores how leaders with purpose define and direct activity to ensure organisational, follower and personal success.  

As a result of this approach, a sense of purpose can now clearly be defined as:  

 "A meaningful mental model that provides a reason for being and a guiding set of personal goals and objectives. A sense of purpose provides clarity of direction, unifying people to operate beyond their business objectives. A sense of purpose evokes passion and commitment; it makes sense of the world and the person’s role within it."  

The results of the research broker new ground for a number of reasons. Perhaps most revolutionary, the research and resulting model show that a sense of purpose, not a specific set of characteristics, is the key to successful leadership. However, characteristics as well as timing and context can act as barriers or facilitators to purpose. For example, characteristics long associated as being vital to good leadership, such as being upfront, honest and consistent, are considered to be facilitators of purpose.   

The research also shows that a sense of purpose is created throughout life’s journey and encapsulates one’s personal values, goals and identity. This allows the leader to see meaning in their purpose; meaning that often comes from having overcome significant challenges and as a result of being influenced by significant others in their life and career to date. A sense of purpose is personal, internalised and self-imposed, it cannot (like goals and objectives) be given to you!   

In addition, the findings highlight that a sense of purpose is time bound and there will come a point when a leader’s purpose within a role is fulfilled, which obviously has huge implications in terms of not only how organisations and individuals approach leadership roles, but also succession planning.  

Interestingly, leaders with purpose define success as more than achieving business and financial objectives, instead focusing on leaving a legacy and achieving balance in their life.   

In addition to turning much of established thinking around leadership on its head, this research also highlights that a fresh approach to identifying, assessing and validating success in leadership is needed. Organisations and individuals alike need to rethink their approach to leadership, to include a renewed focus on the importance of purpose and providing facilitators and removing barriers to success.  

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