By Bright Dickson, MAPP

Person flying upward through a question mark

I know from my years of experience as a consultant with The BB&T Leadership Institute most business leaders don’t truly understand their own leadership purpose. For instance, during our Mastering Leadership DynamicsTM program, when we ask executives if they have a written leadership purpose statement, just 10% of participants in the room raise their hands.

To help business leaders get up to speed on leadership purpose, I’ve written a quick tutorial on this all-important topic in an easy-to-digest question-and-answer format:

What is leadership purpose?

Leadership purpose is your internal understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing and ideally ties to your values, hopes and worldview. It’s what matters to you. And it should be evident in your daily actions.

As explored by The Harvard Business Review in the article From Purpose to Impact by Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook, leadership purpose is like a North Star for executives because it provides a viable course of action. It also helps guide you during times of intense change, which seems to be all the time these days.

Why is leadership purpose important?

If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, your actions won’t be coherent or meaningful. If your actions don’t have meaning, you lose motivation. And it’s hard to lead other individuals, because they don’t understand what you’re about, and you don’t know where you’re going.

Every leader should have a leadership purpose. It’s not a mission statement or a corporate vision. It’s about you and how you are defining yourself in your circumstances. It’s your personal purpose that’s operating in the context of leadership. It’s a personal statement for you about why you’re doing what you do.

How do you discover your leadership purpose?

Leadership purpose is not somewhere out there in the universe waiting for you to find it. You don’t discover your own leadership purpose ­– you create it.

We don’t have a program at The BB&T Leadership Institute specifically dedicated to leadership purpose. It’s a theme woven into all our leadership development programs. However, we do have a process that helps executives understand what is most important. For instance, we urge leaders to look back on their careers as though they are retired and ask questions like these:

  • How do you want to have led?
  • What do you want colleagues to have said about you?
  • How did you make them feel?
  • What do you want to have accomplished?

Then work backward from that perspective and start to create your own leadership purpose.

What are some of the challenges associated with leadership purpose?

Maintaining your leadership purpose is not easy. It means holding yourself accountable to an idea, to something that is bigger than you. People in your workplace won’t always share the same values or sense of purpose as you do. You won’t be able to enact your leadership purpose easily in certain situations – you may encounter some pretty high barriers. And you’re human, so you’re going to mess up sometimes.

Should you share your leadership purpose?

Yes, you can, but it’s not mandatory. However, sharing your leadership purpose isn’t simply telling colleagues “this is what I’m about” and leaving it at that. Your actions as a leader must align with your purpose as a leader. That’s why it’s a “leadership purpose.”

It’s best to share your leadership purpose with friends in the organization with whom you have a trusting relationship. Also, when you share it, include a request that these people hold you accountable.

How can you put your leadership purpose into action?

There are four primary ways to put your leadership purpose into action. You can use it as a decision-making tool to help guide you. And it can help you manage and navigate work relationships, which is the essence of leadership. Also, a leadership purpose is a powerful touchstone when you find yourself in new situations or pulled in several different directions. Finally, you can use it as a daily action-review tool, and you can monitor your behavior by asking yourself questions like, “Given what I value and what I want to be, how did I do today?”

What are some misunderstandings about leadership purpose?

Typically, I encounter two misconceptions. Executives think their leadership purpose should be the same as their company’s mission statement or corporate vision. It’s not. As I mentioned earlier, your personal leadership is about you and your values. Another misconception is that creating a written leadership purpose statement is a one-time exercise. It’s not. Just because you brush your teeth once a day, it doesn’t mean you have great dental hygiene. Leadership purpose is something you do day in and day out at work.

Every leader should create their own written leadership purpose statement and understand that, like all human creations, it is imperfect. But you need to use it as the purposeful tool it can be for living the life you want to live and for being the leader you want to be.

Leadership Institute Magazine

The new BB&T Leadership Institute Magazine is designed to share our latest thoughts on the broad spectrum of leadership topics, introduce you to a few of our favorite leaders from across the country, and share principles and insights that can impact both organizational and personal success.

Among other articles you can read online, we speak candidly with Bill George, an extraordinary teacher and author whose leadership philosophy perfectly mirrors our own. You can also enjoy features from The BB&T Leadership Institute that focus on the importance of employee engagement, the power of mindful leadership and expert advice on molding millennials into key contributors.

We trust your previous interactions with The BB&T Leadership Institute have been fruitful. The new digital magazine is another excellent opportunity to connect with us and further consider your leadership journey.

About the Author

Bright Dickson, MAPP

Bright Dickson, MAPP

Vice President, Senior Consultant

As a consultant with The BB&T Leadership Institute, Bright Dickson leads Happiness! at BB&T and serves as the chair of the Happiness Council. Dickson earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University and a master’s of applied positive psychology degree from The University of Pennsylvania.