Article: Do You Understand Leadership Purpose?

Every leader should create their own written leadership purpose statement. Here’s what you need to know about crafting one.

Finding Your Leadership Purpose

Bright Dickson, MAPP
Senior Consultant


I know from my years of experiences as a consultant with The BB&T Leadership Institute most business leaders don’t truly understand their own leadership purpose. For instance, during our Mastering Leadership DynamicsTM program, when we ask executives if they have a written leadership purpose statement, just 10% of participants in the room raise their hands.

To help business leaders get up to speed on leadership purpose, I’ve written a quick tutorial on this all-important topic in an easy-to-digest question-and-answer format:

What is leadership purpose?

Leadership purpose is your internal understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Your leadership purpose should be tied to your values, hopes and worldview. It’s what matters to you. And it should be evident in your daily actions.

As explored by The Harvard Business Review, leadership purpose(opens in a new tab) is like a North Star for executives because it provides you with a viable course of action. Also it helps guide you during times of intense change, which seems to be all the time these days.

Why is leadership purpose important?

If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, your actions won’t be coherent or meaningful. If your actions don’t have meaning, you lose motivation. And it’s hard to lead other individuals, because they don’t understand what you’re about and you don’t know where you’re going.

Every leader should have a leadership purpose. It’s not a mission statement or a corporate vision. It’s about you and how you are defining yourself in your circumstances. It’s your personal purpose that’s operating in the context of leadership. It’s a personal statement for you about why you’re doing what you do.

How do you discover your leadership purpose?

Leadership purpose is not somewhere out there in the universe waiting for you to find it. You don’t discover your own leadership purpose ­– you create it.

We don’t have a program at The BB&T Leadership Institute specifically dedicated to leadership purpose. It’s a theme woven into all our leadership development programs. However, we do have a process that helps executives understand what is most important to you. For instance, we urge leaders to look back on your career as though you are retired and ask yourself questions like these:

  • How do you want to have led?
  • What do you want colleagues to have said about you?
  • How did you make them feel?
  • What do you want to have accomplished?

Then work backward from that perspective and start to create your own leadership purpose.

What are some of the challenges associated with leadership purpose?

Maintaining your leadership purpose is not easy. It means holding yourself accountable to an idea, to something that is bigger than you. People in your workplace won’t always share the same values or sense of purpose as you do. You won’t be able to enact your leadership purpose easily in certain situations – you may encounter some pretty high barriers. And you’re human, so you’re going to mess up sometimes.

Should you share your leadership purpose?

Yes, you can, but it's not mandatory. However, sharing your leadership purpose isn’t simply telling colleagues “this is what I’m about” and leaving it at that. Your actions as a leader must be aligned with your purpose as a leader. That’s why it’s called leadership purpose.

It’s best to share your leadership purpose with friends in the organization with whom you have a trusting relationship. Also sharing it should be accompanied with a request that these people hold you accountable.

How can you put your leadership purpose into action?

There are four primary ways to put your leadership purpose into action. You can use it as a decision-making tool to help guide you. And it can help you manage and navigate work relationships, which is the essence of leadership. Also it’s particularly useful in challenging moments when you are faced with a new situation or being pulled in several different directions. Finally, you can use it as a daily action-review tool, and you can monitor your behavior by asking yourself questions like “Given what I value and what I want to be, how did I do today?”

What are some misunderstandings about leadership purpose?

Typically, I encounter two misconceptions. Executives think their leadership purpose should be the same as their company’s mission statement or corporate vision. It’s not. As I mentioned earlier, your personal leadership is about you and your values. Another misconception is that creating a written leadership purpose statement is a one-time exercise. It’s not. Just because you brush your teeth once a day, it doesn’t mean you have great dental hygiene. Leadership purpose is something you do day in and day out at work.

Every leader should create their own written leadership purpose statement and understand that, like all human creations, it is imperfect. But you need to use it as the purposeful tool it can be for living the life you want to live and for being the leader you want to be.

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