One of the things I enjoy about the various talks I give is the conversations I have afterwards with leaders in the audience. These interactions not only give me the chance to understand which leadership insights resonated with them the most, but it also allows me to learn more about the current challenges and pain points they’re looking to resolve in their organization.
Recently, I was reminded of one of these conversations where a senior VP asked me this question – ‘what would you say is the one thing that every leader should do?’ Now on the surface, this question might seem to infer one of those quick-fix, set-it-and-forget-it solutions that leaders could employ in order to shift their focus to other issues demanding their time and attention.
After all, when it comes to leadership, our ability to succeed in this role involves more than just one skill set or approach, something that’s particularly evident when we consider the increasing demands and ever-changing conditions that shape and define today’s workplace environment.
And yet, despite those increasing demands and distractions – not to mention the need for continuous adaptation and innovation in light of changes that are brought on both within and outside the organization – there is in fact one thing that every leader today should be doing.
Regardless of what position they hold or what industry they operate within, today’s leaders need to make sure that their actions and words serve to answer this one important question – what is our purpose?
Granted, as leaders, we all understand the importance of creating and communicating a vision or mission statement that serves to tell both our employees and those we hope to serve what it is that we create or offer.
Unfortunately, when it comes to defining that vision for our organization, many of us struggle because we make the process of creating it too complex, too unwieldy and consequently, we end up with a message that’s not as relatable as we need it be, nor is it truly effective as being an idea or vision that others would willingly rally around.
When it comes to answering the question of what is our purpose, we too easily get bogged down in the process of conceptualization because we think of our collective purpose in fuzzy terms and not in a manner that best connects this message, this idea with what matters to those under our care.
And many times, we also forget that the key audience for this message are not the people outside our organization, but instead it’s the people who we have the responsibility to guide forward; those who look to us to provide a context for what’s happening out there in terms of what we need to do in here.
It’s a reality that LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner recently had to come to terms with when he called an all-hands-on-deck meeting with his employees after their company’s stock lost 45% of its value following the release of its fourth-quarter earnings.
In light of the understandable apprehension and concern that could be found amongst his employees upon seeing this massive loss in stock value, and hearing what others were saying about what this could mean for the future of their organization, Weiner had a very clear message he wanted to share to those under his care:
We are the same company we were the day before our earnings announcement. I’m the same CEO I was the day before our earnings announcement. You’re the same team you were the day before our earnings announcement. And most importantly, we have the same mission, vision, and sense of purpose in terms of our ability to create economic opportunity. None of that has changed. It hasn’t changed one iota.”
Now, of course, many business and stock market pundits are focusing on whether Weiner’s message will appease both investors and LinkedIn employees about the organization’s strength going forward.
But from the perspective of how do we succeed at leadership in today’s environment, the truth is that we can’t limit our view or message to discrete moments in time, but instead we need to recognize how those moments can impact our ability to achieve our shared purpose. And in particular, how these moments can distract those under our care from what it is we’re meant to do.
And that is exactly what Weiner gets right here – this wasn’t the time to simply reassure; it was also an opportunity remind his employees about what their organization’s real purpose is; of why they do what they do.
While a loss in stock value can no doubt hurt the economic perception of an organization, it doesn’t change the fact that what compels people to deliver their best is not market valuations and quarterly reports as those are simply the end products of our collective efforts.
Instead, the reason why people are driven to bring their full selves to the work they do is because they care about the shared purpose that binds their collective efforts together; a purpose that tells us why this is important and why it matters.
The simple truth is that we can’t inspire the best in others without a compelling reason that explains why they should care [Share on Twitter]. Of why they should willingly dedicate their native talents, creativity, and insights towards helping to make our vision a reality.
And we also have to be honest in recognizing that the easiest thing a leader can do is to allow external forces or external agendas to dictate what their organization focuses on. Of what and how they choose to respond to situations and circumstances that adversely impact them either in the here and now, or potentially further down the road.
But doing so only serves to leave your organization without a rudder that would otherwise realign the collective efforts of your employees so you can achieve the shared purpose that those you lead were first drawn to and wanted to be a part of in making a reality.
This is why being able to answer the question ‘what is our purpose?’ in every action we take, in every decision we make becomes so critical to our ability to not only succeed, but to bring out the best in those we lead. It ensures that we’re not simply bending to those external demands in order to silence the naysayers and dissenting voices. Rather, our focus is on how in the face of such obstacles do we remind those we lead of the reasons why we’re here and why we must continue despite such setbacks.
The legendary management icon Peter Drucker once wrote:
The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”
This is at the very heart of why each and every leader today needs to keep their ability to answer the question ‘what is our purpose?’ at the forefront of every action, every behaviour they commit to making as they guide their organization forward. We have to remember that leadership is about more than getting things done; it’s about helping others to do and be better [Share on Twitter].
And our ability to accomplish that is not through knee-jerk reactions to what those on the outside want to see us do to further their agendas or perceptions, but by connecting what our organization does with what matters to our employees. That we consistently communicate and remind those under our care about the reason we’re here, of what our true purpose is, and of the future we can create through our collective efforts.
So while there can be no doubt that to succeed at leadership requires leaders to diversify their skills and experiences, to operate in a state of continuous learning in order to better understand the needs of those they serve, we must not lose sight of the fact that there’s an underlying thread connecting everything thing we do today and in the months and years ahead.
A thread which provides the context for why our employees show up to work every day to deliver their best; which informs people why they should follow us and why they should care.
And that thread is being able to answer the question “what is our purpose?”
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