Meaning and purpose: why you need both

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In this blog, TPC Leadership Partners Andrew McDowell and Hilary Harvey discuss the importance of leaders being aligned to their meaning and purpose and the benefit this brings to themselves, their teams and their system.

If a leader is aligned to a sense of purpose, it makes a positive impact on how they lead themselves, others, teams and their system. Their clarity and energy are likely to motivate those around them. Having a sense of purpose will rub off on their organisation, infusing it with meaning, providing direction and a source of inspiration.

If there’s a disconnect between how you’re living and leading, and what your values are; then you’re likely to end up in some kind of crisis. Andrew McDowell, a Partner at TPC Leadership, explains that people can experience either “an existential crisis, is where someone gets over-identified with doing and achieving to the point that they end up feeling lost, wondering whether their efforts have any value or purpose. Or they can experience a crisis of duality, where they get over-identified with the vision of what is possible, to the point where that vision becomes idealised, and it feels impossible to take any action to achieve it”.

Either way, these crises stem from either failing to make meaning from what you are “doing” or from how you are “being”, or from not having a sense of purpose that guides you towards right actions.  

The good news is that consciously working with meaning and purpose can be a pragmatic leadership skill that can be learned and cultivated. You can hone your relationship to meaning and purpose – and watch the benefits spill over into your organisation. 

Meaning and purpose are distinct

If you are to cultivate a sense of meaning and purpose, it’s essential to understand they are two different things.

“Having a sense of purpose is like having a guiding star that you are journeying towards, or an ideal that you are pursuing” says Andrew, “while we make meaning from our experiences along the journey towards that purpose”. In this way, having a sense of purpose is something to strive towards, while meaning is how we make sense of the journey, and motivates us to keep moving.

When we don’t appreciate the difference between meaning and purpose, we can end up neglecting one or the other.  Being completely focused on a purpose, could result in losing touch with day to day and even bigger picture meaning. Being completely absorbed in finding meaning risks losing a sense of direction. 

It’s an ongoing process

Leading towards a purpose, and extracting meaning along the way, is a dynamic adventure. You don’t just make a purpose statement one day, set your inner values and then glide forward effortlessly, propelled by purpose. It requires you to do some serious ongoing work. Purpose unfolds over time, and meaning is made everyday, it requires you to pay attention to your process.

“You need to have the maturity and discipline to evaluate your decisions and look at their impact” says Hilary Harvey, Partner at TPC Leadership. “What’s the choice I’m making? What’s the conscious meaning I’m making from these day to day challenges?” 

Of course, the choices you make might not be easy. “Once you have a strong sense of direction and purpose,” says Hilary, “it requires courage to say, ‘despite what the situation is apparently demanding of me, I’m going to keep moving towards what I believe to be right and true.’”

Everything can be progress

“With every leader we work with, meaning and purpose are always part of it, whether they know it or not,” says Andrew.  “Every leader wants to be moving towards the fulfilment of a purpose, they want to have a meaningful experience, for their contribution to matter”. Leaders can easily become caught up in the daily grind, in the immediate, in the tasks that have to be done. The key is to keep your connection to purpose and meaning alive.  Even the smallest, most mundane of tasks, can be meaningful and contribute towards a purpose with the right mindset.  

“If you lead towards a purpose, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to turn out,” says Andrew. “There’s uncertainty to navigate. You need courage and resilience to keep moving, and discipline and insight to make meaning of what’s happening.”

Now, perhaps more than ever, our organisations need leaders who can consciously take this journey and navigate the uncertainty it entails.  In an unpredictable, ambiguous world, having the personal leadership required to stay aligned to a sense of purpose, inspiring others to pursue a collective purpose, and supporting all to extract meaning from their contributions, could turn out to be the ultimate strategic advantage.  

Want more insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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