Why successful leaders believe purpose matters

A new leadership book looks at nine CEOs who have driven success and engagement by taking steps to define the purpose behind their organisation.

Does believing in the purpose of our work drive our performance and job satisfaction? Authors of new leadership book Why Purpose Matters argue that we absolutely do.

“Each of us yearns for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as we need to know that we make a contribution to making the world a better place,” says author Dr Rodney Howard. “Similarly, in our organisation and team experiences we yearn for a sense of collective purpose, as this helps us make sense of one central question: why are we doing what we are doing?”

Rodney argues that while the search for meaning has always been there, we have the time to attend to it now. “As societies and developed economies become more advanced, our survival needs are increasingly catered for. Thus we have the available energy and interest to satisfy higher order needs. These include meaning and purpose.”

Co-author Nicholas Barnett agrees, adding that a desire for purpose in the workplace is particularly pertinent for the millennial generation. “More than prior generations, they want to work for an organisation that does more than simply make more money for the boss and the shareholders,” he says.

“They want a higher order purpose and to make a contribution to something that is greater than themselves. If they can’t find that higher order purpose at your company, don’t expect them to stay too long.”

Both currently running lead consultancy practices with a strong focus on helping organisations to gain clarity of purpose, Rodney and Nicholas pulled resources to get down on paper – through tips and case studies – the processes they lead an organisation through to clarify its purpose and the ways it can be embedded in the workplace culture to add focus and energy to employee endeavours.

Case studies include the CEOs of Medibank and Geelong Football Club. “The nine leaders were convinced that, well implemented, purpose would transform their organisation’s culture from the inside out, shaping a whole new organisational character and identity,” says Nicholas.

“They also had a genuine desire to discover something that would energise and focus their employees and improve their day-to-day working experience. They knew they needed to find something greater than just being more efficient and making more money.”

Defining the purpose in your workplace

The authors set out a four-stage process in the book:

  • Commit – gaining commitment from the CEO and the executive team is a critical enabler of success. Without it, purpose will become another failed change initiative. It might take many months of discussion and consideration to gain this commitment. Only once the leadership is committed, can a purpose journey can begin.
  • Discover – create opportunities for everyone in your organisation to participate in a discovery exercise that seeks to clarify your organisation’s purpose. The aim is to ensure that each staff member has had an opportunity to share their view in some way – online channels are good here. Once the data has been gathered and distilled, the inputs can be used by the executive to create a succinct expression of collective purpose.
  • Engage – it is now time to engage your people as advocates of purpose. Communication, leadership and role modelling are important, as are discussion forums in which people can explore how they best align their activities with purpose within the business. Implementing active projects within the business that are aligned and promote purpose are important.
  • Embed – the aim is to embed purpose within the DNA of your organisation so that it informs decision-making in a meaningful way. This will require sustained investment over months and years. Finding ways to keep purpose front of mind and embed it within organisational systems will help bring it alive and ensure that your business gains the benefits of becoming purpose-led.


According to Nicholas and Rodney, one of the most critical ingredients to success is the employee engagement. “Employees are more likely to derive meaning and drive from the company’s purpose if they have some involvement in its discovery,” says Nicholas.

That’s not to say asking employees to derive meaning and drive from their company’s purpose isn’t a big ask. “That’s why it needs to be done with genuine care, commitment and integrity,” adds Rodney. “Ultimately, deriving meaning in life is our personal responsibility and not the role of our organisation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t look toward our leaders and organisations for a collective sense of purpose.

“Studies reliably prove that those employees who are clear on an organisational purpose that is led with genuine integrity are more highly engaged and deliver greater productivity and commercial success.”

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