The Importance of Purpose for Successful Leadership

Chris Underwood, Managing Director at executive search and leadership development firm Adastrum Consulting.

The notion of leadership and what makes a great leader have long fascinated the academic and business world alike. The styles and approaches of great leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill have been endlessly analysed and explored to try and capture exactly what it is that makes for successful leadership.

Indeed, researchers and practitioners have identified a vast array of leadership theories and frameworks to help us identify, select and train leaders. Leadership styles including ‘authentic’, ‘ethical’ and ‘values-based’ have been much discussed and examined. However, they are largely concerned with describing the characteristics of leaders rather than successful outcomes and the role an organisation can play in achieving them, and do not fully explain leadership success.

Something which has not been explored in-depth, however, is the role and importance of ‘purpose’ in leadership. An evidenced-based leadership model – the result of research as part of a unique collaboration between Kingston Business School’s Wellbeing at Work Research Group (part of Kingston University) and Adastrum Consulting – looks to provide a clear, evidenced-based foundation in understanding the process involved in leading with purpose and why it is key to success.

The notion of purpose is, of course, not a new one and has received recent interest in the business and HR world. Yet limited academic research into ‘purpose’ in leadership exists. 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.

What does this mean for established and up and coming leaders? Key findings from the research and resulting model show how focusing on a sense of purpose can lead to success.

The research shows that 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 comes from having overcome significant challenges and as a result of being influenced by significant others in their life and career to date. A sense of purpose is personal, internalised and self-imposed, it cannot (like goals and objectives) be given to you!

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. A leader with purpose 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 also concerned to align their own personal values with their own definition of success, and achieve a sense of meaning and well-being in attaining their goals.

Instead of being reliant on a set of specific characteristics, the new model clearly shows that success in leadership is dependent on conceptualising purpose and having the facilitators in place to realise this. However, a leader’s sense of purpose is much more likely to translate to success if certain key facilitators are present – such as behaviours. As such, key characteristics, such as being transparent, consistent and passionate are important.

A leader’s sense of purpose is also much more likely to translate into success if certain barriers are overcome, which exist both internally and externally to the person. These can include limitations of the job role, such as a lack of overall responsibility, limitations of the organisation such as a complex structure, unsupportive culture or lack of focus and limitations of the team including inadequate resources and calibre, and other external factors such as the economy.

The findings also highlight that a sense of purpose is time bound and there will come a point when a leader’s purpose within a role is fulfilled and their job “done”. To remain successful and effective, they need to either find a new sense of purpose –which may come through a promotion or new role – or exit the organisation and find it elsewhere. This obviously has huge implications for how leaders view their current and future roles, as well as succession planning in general.

In addition to turning much of established thinking around leadership on its head, this research also highlights that a fresh approach to identifying, assessing and validating success in leadership is needed. Organisations and individuals alike need to rethink their approach to leadership, to include a renewed focus on the importance of purpose and providing facilitators and removing barriers to success.