Leaders Understand the Common Purpose They Share with Followers

Tolstoy’s View of Purpose

In the 19th Century, acclaimed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy made important observations about the crucial nature of having a sense of purpose. At one point, despite the great fame and success he’d achieved, Tolstoy was despondent and empty. He concluded that his life was without purpose and meaningless, and that led him to frequent thoughts of suicide. Tolstoy searched for a purpose beyond his immediate circumstances and substantial wealth, but he found nothing. He explained, “Rational knowledge brought me to the recognition that life was meaningless and I wanted to destroy myself.” Tolstoy continued searching and eventually found his transcending purpose in faith, but getting to that point was a painful struggle that almost destroyed him.

Organizational Purpose

The same thing often happens inside organizations. People sometimes lose or never understand the common purpose upon which the organization was founded. A sense of common purpose helps organizations sustain themselves as they fight through difficult times. That’s true of businesses, schools, churches or nonprofit organizations. Without that sense of purpose the organization diminishes into a series of repeated tasks that are seldom challenged. If there’s a vision at all, it’s not necessarily a shared one. Yet, a shared vision is directly related to the leader’s task of creating sense of common purpose. Unfortunately, organizations lacking vision and a sense of common purpose, lend themselves more to power wielding than leading and internal competition than teamwork.

Leader’s Must Create Shared Vision

However, commitment to vision and common purpose doesn’t mean commitment to the “Old way of doing things.” In fact, the Harvard Business Review noted that one of the reasons for organizational failure is “active inertia.” Said differently, it’s a rigid commitment to the status quo that replaces fresh thinking that led to success in the first place. It certainly is vital for leaders to create a shared vision and nurture a general understanding of their shared common purpose. However, it’s also the leader’s job to empower and encourage people to achieve those things with fresh creativity. As fundraising consultants, we advise clients to share their vision and common purpose with donors and volunteers.

Five Core Practices of Great Leaders

Essentially, through their practices leaders actually become catalysts that enable others to act. Not surprisingly, in The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner found that very thing in their research on leadership behavior, “When leaders are at their personal best there are five core practices common to all: they Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and they Encourage the Heart.”

However, as I explained in a recent blog, a strong sense of purpose stimulated by those behaviors occurs more in a culture of covenants rather than contracts.

Purpose is Critical to Survival 

Likewise, Victor Frankl found that having a sense of purpose was crucial to his survival. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how his sense of purpose sustained him in his three-year struggle in Nazi prison camps. He noted that in the midst of such dehumanizing captivity, that sense of purpose allowed him and other prisoners to transcend their immediate circumstances. Frankl explains that Nietzche captured the essence of his point when he said, “He who has a why (a purpose) to live for, can bear with any how.” In a chilling account, Frankl described the fate of prisoners who lost their sense of purpose. “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”

The same is true of any organization. Once people lose a sense of common purpose, it’s only a matter of time before the organization diminishes. It’s the leader’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and it’s something we’ll discuss further in next week’s blog.