The Transformative Power of Purpose

There is a movie called Everest. It is about climbing the world’s highest mountain. At the outset the guide explains to the climbers that when they get to the highest regions of Everest the conditions will be so adverse to life that they will actually be in the process of dying. The challenge will be to reach the peak and leave as quickly as possible, to get to a lower region that better supports survival.

As the movie unfolds the many extraordinary challenges of climbing Everest become clear. The climbers actually note that the process is characterized by suffering and agony. At certain points it appears that it is impossible for a given person to go on, yet, in the face of great danger, the person pushes forward. This hunger gets one exhausted man to the crest and a short time later he dies because of his loss of energy. Shortly thereafter some of the others also die.

Climbing the mountain is a choice. None of the climbers are being paid. Indeed they are paying a very large sum to make the torturous journey. They are there because they want to be there. They are intrinsically motivated and they are giving their all.

At one point, a participant asks the others why they seek to climb Everest. The answers are very general, such as “because it is there.” One mailman explains that he wants to show what an “every day” person can do and says that he has promised a class of public school children that he will plant the flag they gave him at the summit. Later, in a private conversation, one of the climbers says that when he is home in Texas he is often depressed but when he is on the mountain he feels fully alive.

The last sentence is important. When people are authentically pursuing a meaningful purpose, they indeed are more fully alive.

Researchers tell us that to be engaged is to be fully present, which means the people bring their whole self to the task (Rothbard and Patil, 2012: 56-69). They feel challenged by what they are doing. They become absorbed and fully concentrate. They experience extra energy and the energy gives them the ability to persist and move forward. They feel more alive and their unique experiences give rise to learning and growth.

The research also suggests when people are fully engaged they feel more invested, proactive, adaptive, creative and authentic. As they act, get feedback and adapt, they are developing into a new version of themselves. The emerging self feels more genuine. They are not “on stage” they are doing what they are doing because they love what they are doing. In the process they tend to express their most central thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

The above are impacts on the individual. The pursuit of purpose often has collective impacts. When people pursue a challenging purpose together, as did the mountain climbers, the sense of ego driven isolation begins to dissolve. As they pursue their purpose, they recognize their interdependence. They cannot get to the top alone. As they begin to authentically communicate and collaborate they discover that they not only are more fully human but so are the others. Whole people begin to see and relate to whole people. Others are no longer transactional objects to be used for our own purposes. Instead they become inherently valuable people. When this happens people see immense potential in others. As this happens the people begin to sacrifice not only for the goal, but for the needs of the other people. In the movie we see an increasing willingness of people to risk their lives to help one another. We see the emergence of a network of high quality relationships, a network of love.

Here there is much to learn. In the conventional mindset we expect senior people to be self-interested and partially engaged managers of a technical-political hierarchy. In the positive mindset we recognize that the senior person can also transcend self-interest and pursue the common good. The primary task of any leader is to be purpose driven, to constantly rediscover and communicate the collective purpose and inspire people to willingly engage it. In the positive mindset the leader is a dynamic whole. He or she nurtures a network of dynamic and whole beings. In that network the people are doing what they do because they want to do it. The organization becomes capable of doing things it cannot do conventionally.

Reflection

What do you believe about purpose and engagement?

What differentiates a purpose driven organization?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

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