Posts tagged purpose
Choose Substance Over Form

When I knew that I would be moving on from my role of school Headmaster five years ago, I considered two primary pathways forward. One was another school leadership position. The other was to become a leadership coach and consultant. A variety of factors would point me in the latter direction, which I have been traveling on for the past five years. But this was only possible due to my willingness to open up to new possibilities and not allow myself to become stuck along the one path that I had come to know so well.

In their timeless presentation on the perils of leadership (Leadership on the Line, HBR Press, 2002, pp. 218ff,) authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky caution leaders to worry less about the form of their work and focus instead on the substance or essence of their contribution. We tend to come to think of ourselves by the form of what we do (“I am a mayor”, “I am a business executive”, “I am a professional athlete”, etc.) and struggle to make sense of things when our positions and status change, voluntarily or not. Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom with an empty nest, the non-profit leader who had not been renewed, the politician on the wrong side of an election, the retired technician or the laid-off laborer find themselves disoriented, with a reduced sense of purpose and unclear direction.

Without question, such periods can be very difficult and confusing, particularly when they occur suddenly and are imposed from without. But when a person chooses to identify first by who they are as people and what motivates them in the service of others, they can more easily and confidently move forward.

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Step Away to Step into Life

I have two clients that are a block away from each other in NYC. The walking time between them is measured in seconds and often I can schedule things to allow me to go from one to the other in short order.

But there are times when I have to schedule them on different days, which would be less of an issue if I didn’t live an hour away from them.

This past week, I took things to a new level. I visited one client on Tuesday and the other on Wednesday. In between, I flew down to Florida for an early morning talk to over 300 leaders. Including local commutes to and from the airport, my journey from one client to the other, though themselves separated by only one block, exceeded 1900 miles.

Talk about a long walk down the block!

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Finding the Meaning in Our Work

As I researched this topic, I was struck by the extent by which all people, not just back office or less prominent professionals, identify meaning and purpose as central elements of their job satisfaction. We all seek affirmation and want to know that the work that we do makes a difference. Mary Kay Ash once said, “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, 'Make me feel important.' Never forget this message when working with people.”

Money alone is not what motivates us. In fact, while meaningful pay is certainly a key element in selecting and remaining in a job, compensation is usually not at the top of what motivates us to come to work every day. Purpose, more than any quality, is what we value most.

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What’s Your One Sentence?

In his bestselling book Drive (pp. 154-155), author Dank Pink references a conversation between Congresswoman Claire Boothe Luce and President John F. Kennedy. Sensing that the president had too many competing agendas, she sought to focus him by asking him to think about his “one sentence”.

Each great person, she said, has a single sentence that describes him/her. For Abrhama Lincoln, she said, it was “He preserved the union and freed the slaves”. In the case of FDR, a fitting single sentence would be, “He lifted us up from the Great Depression and helped us win a world war”. Because of his competing agendas, Luce felt that Kennedy’s one sentence would instead become an overly muddled paragraph.

We all can have single sentences that describe us, even if our contributions are not as deep and lasting as the aforementioned presidents. Whether they say something about us as individuals, as leaders or as community contributors, having the ability to construct a single sentence that captures our essence can serve as a great guidepost and motivator.

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Why I Set Goals This Morning (and Why You Should Too)

As I see it, the benefits of goal setting are many, including:

  1. They help you organize your thoughts – You probably have many things on your unofficial to-do list. Setting goals allows you to select from that list and set some direction. (Note: Daily goals are even more effective when they are developed in the broader context of monthly or long-term goals, such as the need to complete a client project or write a book. When you do this exercise in that context, it produces a broader sense of clarity and direction and can better inform what each individual day should look like.)   
  2. They help you prioritize – Along the same lines, goal setting allows you to look at the list that you’re created and determine what the priorities are within the list. What are your must-haves and what are the things that would be nice to achieve but are less imperative?
  3. They allow you to better organize your day – Based on what needs to get done and the available time slots (45 before lunch, 20 minutes until carpool, etc.) you can slot things in where they have the best chance of getting done while also factoring in the rest of your agenda.
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