Seek. Instill. Lead

Learn why having a higher purpose in business helps feed success.

Pursuing a higher purpose in business not only benefits your community and the world, but it also helps your organization prosper.

As leaders grow older, they often begin to think more about what their organization will be like after they retire and about the next generations of leaders. With their children and grandchildren in mind, they may also think about how their lives will be evaluated by their family once they’ve passed away.

Indeed, the influential psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that a growing desire later in life to positively influence future generations is fundamental to the human condition.

In other words, it may be predictable that we think more deeply about life’s meaning and purpose as we age. Many of us start to seek a higher purpose in business and in life because we want to use our position to achieve more good and help others attain more out of their own work and lives.

“Higher purpose” might sound purely spiritual, like something that is only a wish among philosophers or the devoutly religious. But it isn’t. All people can feel a need to contribute to the greater good of society and all can do so.

Going beyond company walls

Your position as a leader gives you a rare opportunity to make a sizable impact on the world. That could take the form of improving the lives of your employees and their families, delivering more than products and services to your customers, or supporting the communities where your organization has locations. Choosing a purpose higher than just bottom-line business goals can strengthen your organization for the long term, so the leaders who take over after your departure are better able to run the business.

A higher purpose in business delivers personal benefits, too: It answers that need to feel satisfied with your impact today and with your legacy.

Of course, you could spend the rest of your career doing what you’ve always done, and you’d likely be considered a business and financial success. But you want to do more, or else you wouldn’t still be reading this article. The good news is, you can do more. You’re in a rare position of influence in the world: You are a leader.

Recognizing the challenges; responding confidently

Choosing a higher purpose in business is daunting. You will likely encounter several challenges:

  • Pursuing a higher purpose is a departure from what got you to where you are now.
  • Your actions might not be supported by your peers, by employees or by others.
  • You don’t know how to instill a higher purpose in your organization once you’ve chosen one.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these challenges, and some suggested ways to respond.

CHALLENGE: Pursuing a higher purpose is a departure from what got you to where you are now.

And changing from your tried-and-true methods can be uncomfortable. It means risking personal failure. It requires new learning. Sticking to what you know, and what got you to your leadership position, is much safer.

RESPONSE: Realize that pursuing purpose could be expected of you, at least indirectly.

Your employees are asking for more from you now. In the research and theoretical literature on leadership, lists of the top characteristics of leaders routinely include inspiration, vision and shared meaning (according to “The Transforming Leader” by C. Dean Pielstick, 1998(opens in a new tab)). A leader with a sense of purpose possesses those characteristics.

Also, pursuing a higher purpose is a relatively low-risk project. You’re not likely to jeopardize your organization’s financial standing if you try and fail to instill more purpose. After all, you can continue to hit your performance marks while you try.

There is, of course, a risk of losing face. But if you believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, and if you act with integrity, no one can rightfully fault you for your earnest efforts to do good. 

CHALLENGE: Your actions might not be supported by your peers, by employees or by others.

Maybe you don’t have a commanding position in your organization or more senior leaders aren’t interested in choosing and instilling a higher purpose. Or you might have peers or a board of directors who don’t support such efforts. You might feel your employees won’t respond to your project for a higher purpose.

RESPONSE: Make the business case for instilling a higher purpose.

Some stakeholders might respond more positively to your higher purpose if they understand that it could benefit the bottom line, build company prestige or lift brand sentiment.

Also, you could subtly introduce more purpose. You can make changes to workplace policies such as giving your workers a day of service so they can volunteer at a community organization.

CHALLENGE: You don’t know how to instill a higher purpose in your organization once you’ve chosen one.

RESPONSE: Educate yourself.

Fortunately, research has discovered tactics that you can study and learn to implement. 

Four proven ways to instill purpose at your organization

Instilling a sense of purpose has research-backed benefits, including lifts in work engagement and work performance and drops in perceived stress and absenteeism.

  1. Explain how each individual’s job contributes to the finished product. B. D. Rosso, K. H. Dekas, & A. Wrzesniewski (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review.(opens in a new tab) Research in Organizational Behavior.
  2. Get testimonials from customers whose lives are touched by the company’s products and share the testimonials with employees. A. Grant (2012). Leading with meaning: Beneficiary contact, prosocial impact, and the performance effects of transformational leadership.(opens in a new tab) Academy of Management Journal.
  3. Give employees dedicated time to help other employees. B. A. Allan, R. D. Duffy, & B. Collisson (2017). Helping others increases meaningful work: Evidence from three experiments.(opens in a new tab) Journal of Counseling Psychology.
  4. Empower employees to take on new challenges and to propose their solutions for how to minimize hindrances. M. Tims, D. Derks, & A. B. Bakker (2016). Job crafting and its relationships with person–job fit and meaningfulness: A three-wave study.(opens in a new tab) Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Purpose makes your employees’ lives fuller by making their work more meaningful. That meaning could come from several places, such as a philosophy or religion, but you could encourage employees to explore their own meaning and how it relates to their work. You might simply focus on showing employees how your organization makes life better for others, so your employees work with a greater sense of mission, service and pride.

By Patrick Gallagher, Ph.D. and Jordan Green
Illustration by Shout