The Role of Purpose in Creating A Common Identity

Rosabeth Kanter on how inspiring others gives her energy

The idea of inspiring others to do more than they thought they could has always thrilled me. I live to observe the triumphs and challenges of people and organizations grappling with change, getting vicarious satisfaction from deep learning about the factors that help other people become leaders. Early in my career, I was fascinated by utopian visions of possibility and outraged by discrimination and exclusion, or by just plain neglect. I was often the first or only woman in my field, so I learned to slough off discouraging voices and cultivate my own inner pep talks. I was a professional with technical skills, but my main outlet was writing – books such as Men and Women of the Corporation, The Change Masters, Evolve!, Confidence, and MOVE, among others – which led to speaking, teaching, and consulting, building a business along the way. A sense of purpose and meaning kept me going through later bumps in the road, as a cause larger than myself propelled me to persist and get my ideas heard. I worked with numerous companies and saw the role that purpose played in creating a common identity and collective definition of success beyond just financial success, which made the purpose-oriented companies sustainable even while chaos swirled around them. I co-founded the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard to ensure that purpose and meaning are central through the life cycle. This program for experienced top leaders transitioning to their next years of service encourages people to tackle big problems that can make the world a better place. We give them tools, insights, case studies, and access to all of Harvard University – but mostly we keep reminding them of the centrality of purpose. Having found a renewed sense of purpose in later life, and having mingled with students and peers, they discover that the capabilities and sensibilities they bring can truly make a difference. The energy that’s unleashed also fuels my own.

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