A United Sense of Purpose Is the Key to True Leadership
Exploring good leadership through the lens of student organizations and applying it to organizations everywhere
“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” —The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni
This is the everlasting struggle of any leader: how can you motivate your team members in a way that is genuine, cost-effective, and successful?
I believe I may have an answer. Now, I do not claim to be a leadership expert, not at all. However, I have been immersed in the culture of student organizations for several years; I believe that the struggle for an effective method of creating a united sense of purpose is apparent in these organizations.
Student organizations are run solely by high school and college students, on little to no budget, and can easily collapse within a few months without good leadership. So I combined my experience in student organizations with leadership research and came to a simple conclusion: a common purpose is the glue that holds a group of people together, whether that is a company, a student group, or anything in between.
To better understand what led me to this conclusion, it’s important to take a look at the methods I’ve seen fail.
Enforcing Rules Through Punishment Does Not Work
Perhaps the biggest mistake I have seen in a student organization has been the enforcement of strict rules with promises of strict punishments if these rules aren’t followed.
For instance, some organizations adopt a strike system. If a member does not complete their assigned tasks by the due date, they will receive a strike and X number of strikes will lead to a warning. Another Y strikes will get you kicked off the team.
Unfortunately, when this system is implemented, one of two things tend to happen (sometimes in conjunction):
- The rules are so strict and frequently broken that they are not enforced, undermining the credibility of the leader and executive team
- Members of the organization slowly leave as they realize the constant headache of worrying about the rules is not worth their energy
The main problem here goes back to our common, united sense of purpose. The leader is not taking the time to ingrain the grand vision and mission of the organization in the members’ minds since they are too busy enforcing the rules another way.
The members are not given a chance to emotionally connect with what they do and the work becomes just another dreaded to-do list item, now with the threat of punishment looming over their heads.
Taking a more academic approach, a study looking at the correlation between different leadership styles and bullying found that autocratic leadership—defined as leadership where “there is no room for employee involvement in the decision-making process”—had a statistically significant positive correlation with bullying.
In other words, in a leadership environment where the leaders were making all of the decisions, which is similar to the leadership method described above to a certain extent, employees felt that they were in an environment conducive to bullying. This is certainly not an environment where one can operate at their best since they do not feel safe.
It’s worth noting here that I am not looking down on those who use this style because it is very frequently seen in media as the way a powerful leader operates and, more importantly, succeeds. Leading a team is difficult and you should not be blamed for making mistakes. However, a leader must learn and adapt. And setting rules is critical but not the way to bring a team together.
Laissez-Faire Prompts Lack Of Care
On the opposite side of a forceful leader is one who uses a laissez-faire approach. Importantly, I’m defining a laissez-faire leader as an extreme on the leadership scale—one who completely lets their organization members manage on their own with no help or care provided.
I’ve seen this in another student organization where members are left to complete tasks within their small individual groups and very little direction comes from up top. While it takes away the cons of the punishment approach, it’s also lacking that common purpose.
The leader is not consistently instilling the purpose that originally brought many of these people together. This is often because the leader themselves has forgotten this sense of purpose.
Without a vision to guide the organization, initiatives can feel disjointed and members feel their work has little value in pushing the organization forward. Ultimately, it can once again lead to members who leave or, worse yet, stay and lose passion for their work.
Why Creating Your Common Purpose Matters
After all of this discovery about the failures of punishment-based and extremely laissez-faire leadership, I arrived at the conclusion that creating a common purpose is truly the only way to create a healthy, purpose-driven team and be a good leader.
[Leaders] must use their full set of leadership tools to create common purpose, which is how one person impels another to act without directing that other person’s every move. Common purpose is what turns me into we. —Common Purpose, Joel Kurtzman
In fact, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell—often regarded as one of the top leadership books—continually points to the importance of a common purpose.
For instance, the ninth law, called the Law of Magnetism, focuses on the fact that leaders attract others based on who they are, not what they want. It follows that if a leader has not internalized the common purpose of the organization they are running, the people they attract and surround themselves with will not care for this purpose either.
Another related law is the Law of Connections which is all about connecting with others on an emotional level. According to Maxwell, “You can’t move people to action unless you first move them with emotion.” This is once more related to creating a united sense of purpose. Most companies’ purposes are inherently emotion-based.
Meta (formerly Facebook) has the mission of “giv[ing] people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Sure, they’re a technology company but they (try to) bring people together based on a common purpose, and an emotional one at that.
Let’s take an entirely different example: McDonald’s. “Our mission is to make delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone.” They want to bring together employees who share a common purpose of wanting to create fun and accessible moments for everyone.
So we have yet another trusted source, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, showing that a common purpose is crucial in leadership.
This Applies Well Beyond Student Organizations
It seems clear that the benefits of a shared purpose are innumerable in student organizations, but that’s not where it ends.
A large study of “500,000 survey responses of worker perceptions” in U.S. businesses found that organizations that promote a common purpose and do so with clarity—meaning the expectations of management are clear—have higher-performing stocks over time.
All in all, instilling a common purpose among all members or employees of an organization is not an easy task but neither is it insurmountable. It fosters better relationships and better work performance so it is certainly worth a try.