Why We Should See Purpose As the Foundational Principle Of Our Workplaces

When we can think more deeply about our own purpose and its alignment with the company’s reason for being, we can cultivate an environment of innovation and growth.

FS Productions/ Getty Images
FS Productions/ Getty Images

Business books often speak of a “knowing-doing gap” to explain performance failures: leaders understand which strategies to implement, but they can’t seem to execute them well. With purpose, most leaders don’t even know what it means to pursue a purpose fully, much less how. Influenced by experts who extoll purpose’s benefits for the enterprise, they’re stuck seeing purpose instrumentally, as a means to an end. They have a harder time understanding it as an existential intent that companies project from the inside out. The first step to a deeper engagement with purpose is to pause and reflect more seriously on purpose, conceiving it not as just another management tool, but as a foundational principle for organizing that reflects your company’s very sense of self.

Rethinking the nature of purpose should prompt you in turn to reimagine your role as a leader. Yes, you’re charged with creating economic value. But your primary job is to define a reason for being and in turn infuse the enterprise with meaning. How attuned to purpose are you really? Do your communications internally and externally orient the company around a desire to do good for multiple stakeholders via core businesses in addition to creating value for shareholders? Are you injecting purpose methodically into strategy, your oversight of working conditions, and your company’s relationships with stakeholders?

More broadly, you can initiate your company’s movement toward a deeper engagement with purpose by assessing its current state of commitment. If your company currently pursues a reason for being, its commitment might be limited or convenient. Are your core offerings inherently harmful? Is purpose a side hustle, relegated to CSR initiatives? If you’re actively pursuing win-win solutions, do you find yourself reluctant to make decisions commensurate with your purpose that hurt shareholders but create value for other stakeholders? If so, you might be practicing convenient purpose and hence have more opportunity than you think to go deeper in projecting your company’s purpose.

Think about your purpose statement itself. Does it evoke higher ambitions that transcend purely commercial concerns? Who precisely are you there to serve, and what kind of moral stand are you taking? A strong purpose statement alone won’t make for a deep purpose company, but it does matter. If your purpose statement doesn’t clearly state an intention to do good for a variety of stakeholders, it probably isn’t functioning as an intention that is compelling and emotionally resonant.

In staking out moral ground, your purpose statement should express an implicit or explicit critique of the world, even at the risk of polarizing members of the public. Leaders sometimes become uneasy at mention of morality, but we should remember that morality and markets have never been as diametrically opposed as they might seem. Before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he penned The Theory of Moral Sentiments, arguing that humans aren’t merely selfish but also inherently sympathetic toward others and driven to help them without hope of personal benefit. In contriving to bypass morality and avoid taking principled stands in the course of doing business, we risk conducting commerce in ways that contravene our very humanity.

Moreover, societal expectations have changed, and in our polarized times moral neutrality is no longer an option. Companies and leaders must take stands, wading into political debates whether they like it or not. Leaders at companies such as CVS, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Delta Air Lines, Salesforce, Patagonia, and many others do precisely that, increasingly taking on roles as “CEO activists.” They contribute to a remoralization of our society, reinforcing notions of shared values that might in turn help to stabilize and sustain our democracy.

Companies understand this reality and lean into their moral sensibilities. Most of them aren’t out there in the media at every opportunity wielding their pitchforks. Their approach is more targeted, strategic, and closely aligned with their corporate purpose. In pushing to realize an existential intent such as a healthier population, a more equitable society, or a cleaner environment, they implicitly evoke both an image of the good society and critique the present state of society in their area of interest. They indicate their willingness to become activists dedicated to a cause—not all causes necessarily, but certainly this one.

This observation brings me to a final point: think more deeply about your own, personal purpose and its alignment with the company’s reason for being. As the examples in this chapter suggest, leaders ultimately are the source of intent within deep purpose companies. If you can’t channel the corporate intention with every fiber of your being, taking on the role of an activist personally, you won’t lead your company toward a deep purpose. As John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” These days, a belief in the wickedness of capitalism’s practitioners and practices persists, alongside skepticism that our economic system can produce the greatest good. Still, some companies really do take purpose deeper than the rest, earning profits while addressing some of the greatest problems plaguing humanity. By shifting their approach to purpose, convenient purpose companies can join them, paving the way for a more widespread reform of capitalism.

Excerpted from DEEP PURPOSE. Copyright © 2022 by Ranjay Gulati. Reprinted here with permission from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
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