Exploring the role of purpose in leadership
Emma Russell and Chris Underwood, June 01, 2016
Many leadership theories focus on characteristics, but this school of thought looks at sense of purpose
For more than 80 years researchers and practitioners have identified a vast array of leadership theories and frameworks to help us identify, select and train leaders. Despite this, there is still dissatisfaction that existing theories do not fully explain leadership success, particularly for those in the top tier. While approaches such as ‘ethical leadership’, ‘authentic leadership’ and ‘values-based leadership’ have been well-received and much discussed, 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.
We can probably think of several leaders who have been highly successful and accomplished at achieving their business goals and making a lasting, positive impact on an organisation. And yet on the face of it such leaders have been very different in style and behaviours – what do Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel and Richard Branson really have in common? From our research we would argue that common to all highly effective leaders is a clear sense of purpose.
The notion of purpose is not a new one and has received much recent interest. Yet limited academic research into ‘purpose’ in leadership exists (a total of two peer-reviewed papers). What is distinctive about this research is that the focus begins with understanding how leaders with purpose define success – and how they use this as a means for guiding their approach, and against which they rate their progress. By relying on success as a central element to our research – rather than considering it as an afterthought or outcome – we’ve been able to better understand how purpose is conceptualised and utilised in leaders who are at the top of their game.
The key aims of this programme of research were:
1. To identify what a sense of purpose means in the context of successful leadership.
2. To develop a model of leaders with purpose, starting with the sense of purpose as the driver and goal to which success is referenced.
3. To populate the model with an understanding of how purpose is created and how it generates success (including reference to what facilitates and impedes this).
A three-staged approach was used to develop our understanding of leaders with purpose:
1. A comprehensive review of academic and practitioner literature was conducted to identify what is known about purpose in leadership. A systematic search identified more than 100 papers; these were reviewed and considered in the development of the theoretical model of ‘leaders with purpose’. This review identified that while there is a vast body of literature that refers to one’s sense of purpose, little attention has been given specifically to purpose in leadership.
Some elements of ‘purpose’ are embedded in existing models, such as authentic (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Manz et al., 2008), ethical (Brown et al., 2005) and values-based (Frost, 2014) leadership, such as acting transparently and balanced processing (Walumbwa et al., 2008). However, these approaches are ‘style’ theories, defining static characteristics required in a leader to be successful (van Knippenberg & Sitkin, 2013).
2. A focus group with practitioners was run to gain an understanding of how leaders with purpose are defined by business leadership experts. The themes raised here were less concerned with the sense of purpose as identified in the literature review, but focused on what purpose means and how this translates into successful outcomes, along with the personal and organisational factors that facilitate or mitigate success.
3. Structured interviews were held with senior leaders from across the consulting, media, technology, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, data, legal, education and publishing industries and included those at the executive level, functional heads and P&L owners. These interviews were conducted to confirm and validate themes identified through the literature review and focus group.
Our research found that a leader with purpose can be defined as: “A leader who defines success in terms of the legacy they will leave, the impact they intend to make in achieving both financial and business objectives, and more widely in terms of impact at the team, organisational and stakeholder level. A leader with purpose is concerned to align their own personal values with their definition of success, and achieve a sense of meaning and wellbeing in attaining their goals”.
Central findings from the research include:
- A sense of purpose, not a specific set of characteristics, is the key to successful leadership. However, personal characteristics, as well as timing and context, can act as barriers or facilitators to purpose. Facilitators and barriers exist both within (internal) and outside (external) the person.
- The key internal facilitators are mainly concerned with the leader’s style (their behaviours, thought processes and emotions); thus style matters, but it seems only as a moderator of success rather than as a direct predictor of it.
- A sense of purpose is time bound and there will come a point when a leader’s sense of purpose within a role is fulfilled. This obviously has huge implications in terms of not only how organisations and individuals approach leadership roles, but also in succession planning.
- Being purposeful is not the same as leading with purpose. To lead with purpose the leader ‘owns’ their criteria for success, and is focused on objectives beyond the task, job role or immediate business needs.
- Leaders with purpose define success as more than business and financial objectives – for example leaving a legacy.
- 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 stems from having overcome significant challenges or being influenced by significant others in their life and career.
- Those who are identified as leading with purpose are thought to have a strong, clear sense of purpose. This does not need to be shared by all members of the organisation, but the leader needs to translate their goals and objectives into something meaningful for their team, colleagues, clients and stakeholders.
From research to reality
While still a working model at this stage, our model turns much conventional thinking around leadership on its head. Instead of being reliant on a set of specific characteristics, this model clearly shows that success in leadership is dependent on conceptualising purpose and having the facilitators in place to realise this. A leader with purpose then uses this ‘mental model’ to both guide them and provide a reference point for their progress.
What this research highlights is that a whole new approach to identifying, assessing and validating success in leadership is needed. While there is more work to be done validating the research and tracking the processes involved in amending and adapting one’s sense of purpose across a lifetime, this approach provides a huge step forward in developing and understanding how leaders with purpose can best realise their potential and their goals.
The model can be used to better identify those with the potential to lead with purpose. It can be used to understand what barriers may be in place within the organisation that may be preventing people with purpose from leading effectively and well. Our model can also be used in leadership development as a foundation for individual coaching. We anticipate that the model will assist high potential talent, and future leaders, in identifying their sense of purpose, allowing them to engage with this and helping them to understand what their personal barriers and facilitators are in translating purpose into success.
To continue this research we are looking for more leaders and experts in leadership to contact us. It is important we garner a significant contribution – in terms of participants – from industry and the business world, and across a variety of sectors. This ensures that our findings have real-world relevance and are tapping into issues that are salient in modern work today.
Emma Russell is senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Kingston Business School. Chris Underwood is managing director of Adastrum Consulting
If you want to help test the Leaders with Purpose Model in a second (survey-based) tranche of research, please contact Emma Russell at email@example.com