How our COVID world has highlighted the difference between a core purpose and a strapline purpose

It’s been fascinating to watch how differently companies, or more specifically leaders, have responded to our COVID world.

When the first round of lockdowns started to domino around the world, it was only natural for everyone to go into crisis mode and work out how the hell they were going to respond to such an unprecedented event.

As the immediate crisis began to recede, and the ‘new normal’ kicked in, leaders forged ahead with their emergency action plans, rallying their people accordingly.

From my vantage point, I saw two different types of response: leaders who leant forward and saw this moment as an opportunity to accelerate change, innovation and transformation, and leaders who entrenched and pulled up the drawbridge. Both, of course, focused on minimising risks and/or managing costs. The fundamental difference was the ‘how’. The former stayed focused on moving towards the things they most cared about; and the latter, focused on moving away from the things they didn’t want — in this instance the crisis, desperately trying to minimise the volatility, chaos and complexity that came with it.

But this is just a prelude to another observation: if and how these leaders used their organisation’s ‘purpose’ as a resource through this period (which by the way we are very much still in).

What I saw was those that had a ‘core purpose’ (I will explain below) seemed to hold their nerve, and their people tended to pull together with enormous camaraderie and heart-mind action. Those that had a ‘strapline purpose’ fragmented, and their people turned on one another, vying for position in the inevitable downsizing and restructuring that was coming.

Now I am sure there were many different factors at play, and that it was way more complex than I am suggesting here. But don’t underestimate the power of purpose.

‘Purpose’ has had a lot of airtime recently, and many organisations are jumping on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, this means we are seeing more and more of what I call ‘strapline purposes’: purposes created by a brand agency and/or a few senior leaders at the top, who have crafted worthy, wishful thinking and/or altruistic statements of intent, mined from surveys, questionnaires and focus groups.

These types of purpose statements have no natural power, so instead they have to be sold to their people, often with slick, expensive campaigns (the give-away). While many of them are in the right ballpark, and are driven by good intent and motivation, they also miss the point.

From my experience, true core purpose doesn’t need to be campaigned or headlined, for it’s an expression of who we are, which we simply ‘know’ to be true. Its power is all about how it is embodied and lived, and how it turns into an energetic wellspring for change, innovation and transformation. Its job is to bind us, guide us, inspire us and challenge us, in both the good times and the bad. This is how it animates the human field, internally first, and then over time externally, as it ripples out, and becomes a strange attractor to other like-minded people and organisations. It should link our past, present and future. And, importantly, it needs to leave enough space for me, you and us to step in, turn up and become co-authors of what happens next.

It’s not actually about the words themselves, but about the space between them and how they pull us in and pull us along.

This is why the most important test of a purpose is whether or not there is an energetic response to it — not an intellectual or rational one. This is because purpose is about core identity — who we are and what drives us. It needs to energetically connect us to our passion, to our potential, and to the difference we want to make.

Finding core purpose is not an act of creation; it’s an act of discovery, for it is encoded in the unconscious of the organisation. The challenge is decoding it — a process that was one of the breakthrough methodologies that nowhere was founded upon.

From our experience it takes between three and six months to discover, through a disciplined process that gathers implicate data, and then patterns it and incubates it, until it unfolds and reveals itself in a moment of collective breakthrough.

More often than not, this process also uncovers the organisation’s core values (another element that is often misunderstood) — the yang to the yin of purpose.

And then comes the real work — how to use core purpose. But that is for another day.

So, to complete, please find a link below to a FREE document from the nowhere archive on core purpose. It links personal purpose with organisational purpose; and introduces what we call the Organisation’s Backbone — that which gives an organisation its poise and posture, and off of which everything else hangs — a fundamental framework we use to catalyse large scale business transformation.

https://www.now-here.co.uk/core-purpose-booklet/

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Dr Nick Udall

Dr Nick Udall

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CEO of nowhere. Former Chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Author. Keynote speaker. Creative-Catalyst.