What Does Purposeful Leadership Look Like?

Remote workers. Constant technical innovation and disruption. An automated workforce. Self-regulated teams. An always-on digital workforce. The landscape of the modern workplace is changing rapidly and, as a result, leadership models are growing in complexity.

The relentless pace of today’s workplace environments means that employees and leaders alike are constantly in a reactionary mode. They are trying to keep their heads above the water and be one step ahead of the competition. But with this emphasis on productivity comes the obvious risk of employee dissatisfaction and executive burnout.

While this may sound all doom and gloom, labor economists and organizational strategists are noticing a distinct influence changing how we manage these demands. Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are officially the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. And they are ushering in a relatively ignored line of thinking within the business world, that purpose — why you feel compelled to do what you do — is just as important as profit.

A study by Deloitte revealed that 87% of this generation believe success should be measured by more than just financial performance, and employment choices should be made by aligning the values, actions, and impact of the organization in question.

The largest population in today’s labor force is putting increasing demands on businesses and its leaders to operate from a place of purpose. They are challenging the notion that businesses don’t have responsibilities other than making money. They are changing the workplace paradigm to be holistic in its nature.

Rather than dismiss or resist this change, let’s take the time to explore what kind of leadership model this landscape calls for and how it might benefit both employees and the organizations they work for.   

How to establish a purpose-driven leadership model

1) Align your goals with your purpose

Asking whether a positive outcome for each of your business goals ultimately serves your greater purpose is not a practice in high-minded woo-woo. It is about your competitive advantage. It is about serving the people who ultimately drive your business (a.k.a. your customers or clients) and giving them even more of a reason to choose you.

The problem with organizations whose primary focus is on their own financial performance is they do not create the competitive differentiation or emotional engagement from either employees or customers, that is required for long-term success. Inward-facing success metrics causes employees to focus on short-term gains, builds silos that stifle innovation, and all but guarantees mediocre products and services.

Aligning your goals with your purpose means looking over every aspect of your business — from supply chain to customer service to marketing and sales — and looking for ways where each team can better serve the person at the end of the line.

A better product, more sustainable operations, more authentic communications, continuing education and training for your employees — there is no shortage of ways you can shift from an inward-facing mindset to a big-picture strategy that supports your financial goals and creates a more holistic business model.

2) Translate your purpose into actions

Purpose is not a tagline or a marketing campaign. Purpose begins as words, but to be effective it must be translated into actions and woven into the fabric of your business. Start with small initiatives and build slowly to include practices that involve more and more factions of your business.

A company like Patagonia isn’t only committing to their purpose by following sustainable manufacturing practices, they are inventing them. They implemented a recycling and repair program to reduce consumer waste. They have a flexible work program so employees can not only test their products in the wild but enjoy the world the company is working to preserve. Patagonia’s commitment to fostering a balanced work-life culture means the employee’s child development center closes at 5 pm and their HQ buildings are locked, with everybody out, at 8 pm. The offices are not open on weekends.

These business practices and ethos inform every aspect of their marketing strategy and not the other way around. Your actions should not be short-lived philanthropic contributions or partnerships. They are shifts in the way your business operates to support your unique value and what you and your employees are bringing to the table.

You don’t have to go full-on Patagonia, but you have to start somewhere.  

3) Make the connection between your employees’ jobs and your purpose

Most employers have (or should have) an employee recognition program. But a purpose-driven leader needs to take this one step further and outwardly vocalize specifically how every team contributes to your organization’s purpose.

People are not robots. People need information that promotes their positive self-image and motivates them to continue to dedicate a huge amount of time building an organization they most likely do not have ownership in.

And despite what you might think, monetary rewards actually show no long-term increase in employee satisfaction or performance. What employees really want is outward expressions that their contributions are valued and contributing to the bigger picture.

4) Encourage others to hold you accountable to your purpose

Purpose-driven leaders do not shy away from communication and transparency. Without communication, there is poor alignment between roles and departments, and that trickles down to affect your marketing and messaging, ultimately destroying the trust between you and your employees, and your customers and your company.

Encourage communication and empower your employees to play an active role in making your company the best it can be.  

This accountability can take many forms. You can appoint rotating departmental representatives to attend a monthly roundtable where they can hear senior leadership speak about a particular initiative or theme and then open the floor for discussion. The payment processing company Square holds twice monthly “town hall” meetings where any of the 2,300 employees can question or challenge management on decisions that don’t align with their company purpose.

It is essential for a purpose-driven leader to be made aware of an organization’s strength and it’s weaknesses, and see them from perspectives that are not their own. This will give leaders a sense for how these positives and negatives are being translated by your employees and how it’s affecting your company culture.

Opening the floor for discussion might even help you figure out the best way forward. A true leader knows when they need to be at the helm and when to turn it over to its employees and ask “what are your suggestions for how we fix this together?”

A New Way Forward

Managing the workplace of the future requires a strategy, not just reactionary thinking. It requires a conscious effort to gain clarity about your organization’s purpose and identity and then weave it into your business practices and your messaging.

Leading from a place of purpose means focusing on the long-term and the bigger picture. Following this model means you are less likely to get distracted by trends, bogged down by outmoded tactics, and can be more authentic and thoughtful in your communications.

With the right leadership mindset and support systems in place, the purpose-driven business environment is sustainable, stronger, inclusive and yes, profitable.


Courtney Fanning is the founder of Big Picture Branding, providing brand strategy and copywriting for purpose-driven businesses. In addition to serving on the Women in Leadership Nexus Events Committee, she fosters community connections as a refugee mentor for Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and is a student mentor with Providence Career & Technical Academy. When she isn’t supporting businesses and individuals by uncovering their purpose-driven strategy, she can be found wandering through her local farmer’s market, indulging in her passion for the performing arts, and going on day-trips with her family.