Why is having a clear purpose an important leadership skill?

Having a sense of purpose gives meaning to your work. Research confirms that having a sense of purpose has a positive impact on work performance.[1] This is important both for you as a leader as well as for the team as a whole. Without a clear purpose, it is difficult—if not outright impossible—to ensure that a group of people works collaboratively in the right direction.

“The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time and effort exploring, shaping, and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them both collectively and individually,” write Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, two leading experts on team performance, about the central role that ‘purposing’ plays for creating high-performance teams.[2]

A clear purpose does not only ensure orientation and enhance motivation, it will also facilitate the prioritization of goals and tasks (as people will understand which activities are really important to fulfill the purpose). It will also improve collaboration, as team members have a shared cause to work for.

How do you define a clear purpose for your team?

Don’t try to ‘invent’ a purpose: try to discover it instead. A purpose only works well if it is authentic and sincere—if it is ‘lived’ rather than imposed. Take the following three steps to discover your team purpose:[3]

  1. Write down what your team does. In a few sentences, describe the key activities of your team, as well as the products or services that it delivers (e.g. “Our team runs the local university canteen. We prepare lunch for the people who work and study at the university.”)
  2. Clarify who are the main beneficiaries of the work of your team. For whom is your work really important? Who would miss you the most if you’re no longer completing your work? (e.g. “Our work is really important for students and faculty members.”)
  3. Ask yourself why your work is so important for the beneficiaries. Think about the final impact that your work has. Ask several ‘whys.’ For example: “Our work is important because students and faculty members want to eat at lunchtime.” A second ‘why’ could reveal that “They need to eat at lunchtime to keep their energy levels high in the afternoon,” anda third ‘why’ that “They will be able to learn better if their energy levels are high.”

Following these three steps, our university canteen team could, for example, come up with the following team purpose:

The purpose of our canteen team is to provide the students and staff of our university with a healthy lunch that allows them to have a better learning experience in the afternoon.

It is good practice for leaders to involve their team in defining the team purpose, for example by going through the three steps together or at least giving them the chance to review and discuss a first draft. After all, a purpose will only become fully effective if the team members view it as their common purpose.

Skill-building exercise: Defining your purpose as a leader

Having a clear purpose is not only important for your team—it can also be extremely valuable for you as a leader. You can use your personal leadership purpose as a kind of ‘inner compass’ that guides you in your role as a leader.

Try to follow the same three steps from above for defining your personal purpose as a leader:

  1. Think about your core tasks as a leader. What are you here for?
  2. Clarify who are the main beneficiaries of your work as a leader (this will most probably include your team members).
  3. Ask yourself what makes your work as a leader important for them. How and why do you make an impact as a leader? (Remember to use several ‘whys.’)

[1] Grant, A. M. (2012). Leading with meaning: Beneficiary contact, prosocial impact, and the performance effects of transformational leadership. Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), 458–476.

[2] Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The discipline of teams. Harvard Business Review, March/April. 111–120, p. 113.

[3] PeopleLeaders (n.d.). How to create a team purpose statement in three steps (and why). https://peopleleaders.com.au/create-team-purpose-statement-in-three-steps/, accessed 16 December 2022.

This article was originally published in the book “Develop Your Leadership Superpowers” by Dietmar Sternad & Eva Kobin, econcise publishing, 2023. The book is available on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/dp/3903386197/

Illustration: © Eva Kobin