The Journey of Life is to Find Purpose #13 #cong22


Defining your purpose in life is a journey that takes time, reflection and failures.

Total Words


Reading Time in Minutes


Key Takeaways:

  1. Purpose-fully designed goals can drive our lives
  2. Living purposefully can have ripples that expand beyond our immediate circles.
  3. It has taken me a long time to clearly articulate my life’s purpose.
  4. Living our purpose is the journey of our lives.

About Ger Mulcahy

I’m a dad, husband, technologist, leader, professional people manager, executive coach and author. I’m an avid reader, a raging but masked introvert and a reluctant public speaker.

Contacting Ger Mulcahy

You can connect with Ger on LinkedIn or see his work on Amusing Mulcahy

By Ger Mulcahy

What a massive topic this is. I’m a recent addition to the Congregation unconference, but it has been so thought-provoking for me, and this year’s theme is no exception. It is a bit daunting to take on such a broad subject. Do I write about corporate purposes? The broader meaning of life? About porpoise, through a Monty-Pythonesque misunderstanding? (That would probably constitute a cross-purpose.)

To narrow the scope, I’ve been thinking about the articulated purpose of my life; and how long it has taken me to arrive at what I want to achieve with my time.

“Purpose” is one of those words that often gets conflated with other concepts when it comes to people. When we think of an object’s purpose, it’s much more straightforward. For example, a claw hammer has limited functions – to drive nails in or pull them out. You can use a claw hammer for other reasons, but it won’t emplace screws very well or help you cut wood.

People are a whole different matter – we are multi-purpose creatures with an almost unlimited ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It is one of the reasons why when you ask someone what their mission in life is (forgive the conflation), they will often give you a blank look. So many of us go through life myopically focussed on the few steps in front of us. Thoughts about grander themes seem frivolous when you don’t know how to pay the bills or feed your family. Maslow’s hierarchy writ large.

When we’re younger, we may be advised to “find our purpose” or “pursue our passions”. Both of these are challenging pieces of advice for any young person to follow, in my opinion. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my passions were definitely not focussed on my work life. As to conversations about anything grander? Best of luck with a partially formed pre-frontal cortex. I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what I wanted from my college experience other than an antidote to my school years.

It took me until my early forties to clearly state for myself what my purpose in life is. I recognised early on that I would never be someone who transformed the world in a macro way. I am not wired like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk (for which I am thankful). I am content to change the world in a more localised manner – although I did realise that I do want to change the world.

My purpose is to improve the lives of the people I interact with. That’s it. That is what drives my management and leadership practices. It is why I act as an individual and group mentor. It’s the reason why I am a certified and practising NeuroLeadership Institute coach. And it is why one of my (purpose-driven) goals is to be the best dad I can be. I believe that if I can help other people be better versions of themselves through these different avenues in my life, I will have an incrementally improving impact on the world in a series of expanding ripples. It is why when new managers ask me for advice, my first response is often “treat people as people”.

The opposite of this also holds. When I fail to follow the goals derived from my purpose, I act out of character. I forget to smile and greet the security guard who lets me into the building at 6:15 am. I lose patience with the person queueing ahead of me who can’t produce the correct change at the till. I don’t take the time to acknowledge the person in the lift with me and ask them how their day is going. All missed opportunities to improve someone’s day (and potentially make it worse instead) – thereby creating a different set of ripples. An anti-pattern to my purpose.

Like everyone on their life’s journey, I stumble, dust myself off, and try again. But, by having purposefully-driven goals and by continuing to look for opportunities to improve, I continuously serve my purpose. And by serving it, I serve others. This way, I become more like a human Swiss Army knife than a hammer

When Leadership Goes Wrong #17 #cong21


We often celebrate and revere “good” leaders, but don’t always do such a good job of examining and understanding “bad” ones. Misguided and ill-intentioned leadership can be seductive and charismatic and can lead to dismal outcomes if not challenged and countered. This is a story of one leader who focussed on her desired outcomes, and not the social good.

Total Words


Reading Time in Minutes


Key Takeaways:

  1. If not actively and consistently challenged, poor or bad leadership can persist for long periods
  2. It can take tremendous bravery and persistence to challenge strong, negative leadership
  3. The culture we build as leaders enables or disables active debate and creates or destroys psychological safety.
  4. We don’t just set the vision as leaders – we have to establish the appropriate guard rails for execution, and ensure they are consistently and visibly applied.

About Ger Mulcahy:

 I’m a husband and a dad. I’m a technologist and a leader. I have published a book on management, and am writing another. I love to write, but it’s not my primary role. I am also a Brain-Based certified coach, a flyfisherman, a continuous learner and a terrible liar.

I spend a considerable amount of my time thinking and writing about good and bad leadership and management – and about why what we do as leaders carries well beyond the walls of our organisations.

Contacting Ger Mulcahy:

You can connect with Ger on LinkedIn, see his work in his blog or reach him by email.

By Ger Mulcahy

I’ve recently finished reading “Bad Blood” by John Carreyou, which is a fascinating expose of the cultural and leadership failures at Theranos (why do I always think of Infinity Stones when I read that name?). It’s a well-written, highly critical view of how Elizabeth Holmes and her partner, Sunny Balwani, systemically lied and misled investors, staff and regulators before eventually being exposed. It made me think in a broader context about leadership failings, and I’m going to try and capture some of those thoughts in the paragraphs that follow.

We frequently talk and write about what constitutes good leadership, and we can all cite examples of leaders we think epitomise the qualities we aspire to. We talk, write and think less often about leaders who abuse their positions for personal or professional gain.

Leaders set a vision for an organisation or entity, and frequently establish the strategy and norms to meet that objective. Some leaders start out with motives that are not generally considered acceptable, or even downright evil. Hitler and the Nazis spring to mind. Hitler was initially a very effective leader in setting a vision and establishing strategies through his generals, but few would agree with his thinking. Most, myself included, find it abhorrent.

Then there are leaders who think they are doing the right thing but go about it in the wrong way. Bankers “building shareholder value” by generating record profits caused the Great Recession, but I suspect none of those banks’ leaders intended to do so. They were incentivised to do the wrong thing and not focus on the broader social good. Generals in the First World War sent battalions of troops “over the top”, believing they were doing the right thing by sacrificing tens of thousands of men at a time to an insatiable engine of destruction. They may have been uncaring or ignorant, but I believe the majority thought they were doing what they did in service of a greater aim. Their shortsightedness led to massive casualties on both German and Allied sides of the conflict and often moved the trench lines no more than a few feet at a time.

Some leaders sacrifice the truth and their integrity for the sake of expediency. At one point, these leaders may have been well-intentioned, but through a series of sometimes small decisions, become irrevocably lost down a path that has no positive end. The story of Theranos seems, to me, to fit into that category. At some stage in her career, I believe that Elizabeth Holmes may have been a well-intentioned leader. Certainly, the vision she sold to her company, her investors and her board was one of reducing human suffering, which is a noble endeavour. Over time, the means to achieve that end became muddied by greed or an unwillingness to admit failure.

What was astonishing to me in reading Carreyou’s book is the number of competent, renowned, deeply intelligent men (and they were mostly men) who Holmes was able to convince of her sincerity and integrity. Holmes was obviously a superb sales executive. She was not a good leader, however. She cultivated a culture of secrecy, demanded absolute loyalty and fired anyone who raised concerns about her methods. According to “Bad Blood”, her partner (and paramour) Balwani bullied and belittled staff and created a hugely toxic environment.

In the end, it was the deep bravery of individuals willing to stand up to a highly litigious Theranos that exposed the rotten heart of the company. A number of whistleblowers worked with Carreyou and the Wall Street Journal to bring the truth to light. They, to me, were demonstrating leadership characteristics that Holmes could well have learned from – courage, strength of purpose, resilience in the face of fear and active legal threat and a clear and continuous sense of integrity.
Good leadership requires that we not just set a vision but establish the appropriate parameters within which we should execute it. “Win at all costs” is different to “Win, ethically”. Truth (which is obviously sometimes subjective, but I’m talking objective truth here) should not become a casualty in the pursuit of success. Sharing openly whenever possible creates a culture that values honesty and transparency and leads to problems being raised in a timely and public manner. Maintaining fair compensation and a blame-free approach creates an environment with psychological safety. And rewarding instead of punishing those who challenge us to be better should be a hallmark of any leader.

I recommend Carreyou’s book, not just because it’s a good read, but because it clearly articulates how misdirected leadership is a powerful force for ill – and that is a lesson any of us who lead or manage people must take to heart.