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Why a sense of purpose is the key to leadership success

Posted on by from Adastrum Consulting

What do Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel and Richard Branson all have in common? They’re all leaders with very different styles and behaviours. Yet they share one key trait – a strong sense of purpose.

A new 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. 

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. 

Developing a sense of purpose

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! 

Think about how you define success

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 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. 

Don’t focus on specific characteristics

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. 

Recognise the barriers to purpose

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. 

Appreciate that a sense of purpose is time-bound

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. 

Chris Underwood

By Chris Underwood

Adastrum Consulting

Chris is a managing director at Adastrum Consulting.

Adastrum Consulting

Adastrum Consulting

Adastrum Consulting is an executive search and talent advisory business.

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