The Five Principles of Leadership: Principle #2 is Purpose

Child kicking a soccer ball with other children doing the same in the background

In an earlier post, I shared a definition of leadership that I believe best articulates what is required for leaders to succeed in the fast-moving 21st Century. In the article, I deconstructed the various attributes necessary for a leader to role model “the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives.” In doing so, I foreshadowed a framework derived from more than three decades of benchmarking, learning, applying and adapting. I call it “The Five Principles of Leadership” – Potential, Purpose, People, Playbook, Pay-It-Forward, and committed to devoting the next five articles to diving deep into each of these “P’s”, sharing lessons learned, best practices and pragmatic tips for implementing the model in our daily leadership habits and organizations.

With this backdrop, this is the second of the deeper dive articles – defining a common purpose.  A common purpose is the grand challenge or mission that every member of the team shares. Any organization, regardless of size, can and should have a common purpose (or mission). The task for the leader is to frame a common purpose in a manner that is clear, and that touches the organization’s heart, mind, and soul. At our best as human beings, we yearn to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

A common purpose is the magic that transforms “me” to “we.” To illustrate, I distinctly remember the “a-ha” moment when I learned to appreciate the unifying force of a common purpose. It was many years ago on a youth soccer field. Parents were arriving early with their children for the first day of practice, with their new shoes and their very own soccer balls. The moments leading up to practice were utter chaos. If you have children, you know the drill. Kids were kicking their respective balls everywhere, each with their names written on them so no one could confuse “their ball” with anyone else’s. Hell hath no fury like a kid whose new ball has been kicked by someone else – even a sibling!

Then something magical happened. The coach pulled up in a SUV, threw an equipment bag over one shoulder and a soccer net over the other, nodded to the parents and proceeded to the end of the field where she placed the soccer net. Without saying a word, every child on the field turned and faced the net, and began to kick every ball into the net, regardless of whose name was written on it. Once all of the balls were in the net, they jumped up and down, high fived each other and celebrated as if they had won the World Cup – together.

What had I witnessed? The power of a common purpose in action! The leader made it clear (without speaking a word) what success looked like. Once the talented young players saw the goal, they focused their collective energies to achieve the outcome. Over the course of the season, the coach worked with them to hone their individual skills, found the best positions for their respective skills, taught them structured plays to optimize their collective talents, but did all of this in service to the same common purpose that was established at that first day of practice.

In my personal experience working with teams, there are three pillars to successfully create a common purpose. Any one of these is sufficient, but when all three are present, the galvanizing impact is unbeatable. They are (1) an inspiring mission, (2) customer obsession and (3) shared objectives.

Declaring an Inspiring Mission

President John F. Kennedy’s famous speechwriter, Ted Sorenson famously stated that a “leader must be better than a good communicator, they must be a translator of dreams.” An inspiring mission is a tool to codify and communicate that dream. A mission is a brief description of the company’s fundamental purpose – why the company exists. 

There are three guiding principles that can be found in the best practices of world class missions. They are (1) aspirational, enduring and focusing; (2) succinct; and (3) are focused on the impact the organization hopes to have in the world. Illustrative examples include: LinkedIn: “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”; Google: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”; and Walmart: “to save people money so they can live better.”

Creating a culture of customer obsession: To build a culture of customer obsession, an organization must (1) be clear about the target customer; (2) deeply understand the problems the customer most needs solved; and (3) articulate the benefit or improvement in customers’ lives the company seeks to deliver. Once the target customer is defined, the culture must learn to measure success in the only way that matters – through the customer’s eyes. Fight to avoid celebrating “vanity metrics” such as your revenue growth or stock price, and shift the organization’s focus to the delight in the customer’s life that you create. 

To achieve delight, an organization must fall in love with the customers’ problem, and not the company’s solution. This requires deep customer empathy, walking a mile in the customers’ shoes. There are practical ways of walking in your customers’ shoes which also serve to create a common purpose in the team. One approach is requiring everyone to conduct “follow-me-homes,” where team members directly observe and interact with the customer in their natural environment, taking note of all they see as potential problems to be solved. Another approach is to begin every meeting by reviewing customer feedback, reading aloud and acting on feedback collected from web sites, app store reviews and other user forums. A third is “dog-fooding,” requiring every team member to use your products and make suggestions for how to improve the customer experience. A final approach is mystery shopping, having team members use your competitors’ products and objectively discuss what they admire in the competitors’ offering and identify where your own company or product must improve.

Defining Shared Objectives

Three strategic planning tools are often used to frame shared objectives. They are the team’s mission, their values and their goals. As communicated earlier, a mission communicates purpose, declaring why the team or company exists. Values are the shared beliefs and behaviors that the team will hold themselves and each other accountable to demonstrating. Finally, goals should address the aspects of stewardship (time horizon) and stakeholders (metrics of success for those you serve). Stewardship should include current period and multi-year goals to instill longer-term thinking and a collective responsibility to leave things better than you found them. Stakeholders should be purposefully ordered in the priority you serve them – such as Intuit’s famous True North declaration of employees first, then customers, communities and investors. 

Pulling it all together, the idea of a Common Purpose is a simple idea, but it is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader. If done correctly, it moves a team from “me” to “we.” It puts a stake in the ground for how the team will collectively be evaluated. It empowers everyone to bring their most innovative ideas and thoughts to the table in service to the broader mission. And through the journey, it brings the best out of everyone and the organization, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

What are some of the most powerful examples or experiences you have found to unite a team behind a common purpose?