The Paradox of Purpose #32 #cong22


Purpose is a heavy topic and has been so for millennia. It also carries a lot of baggage; for example, value judgements of “goodness”.
Both for individuals and organizations, purpose is a powerful and useful ‘guiding’ force. Embrace it, but do so wisely.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Purpose is foundational—it is the bedrock on which character is built. And yet it is also a constant work in progress.
  2. Purpose should be resilient—not fickle. And yet it should (and very well is) very dynamic.
  3. Purpose is unique and personalized. And yet it is also connective, unifying, and shared within an organization or community, or even a coalition.
  4. Like waves, purpose reacts with those it touches. It reflects, refracts, and diffracts. We can control how we project our purpose, yet its consequence and impact depends deeply on the reaction of others.

About Paul Ellingstad:

As Managing Partner of PTI Advisors, Paul accompanies leaders who want to innovate and grow while effectively navigating personal, organisational, societal and planetary change. He is a veteran of the technology sector and worked at iconic brands Gateway, Compaq, and HP. He is a lifelong learner and a systems thinker, who is passionate about mentoring and intergenerational collaboration to achieve sustainable development. Paul is a fellow in the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society Program, he serves as a director on several boards, he is a youth leadership advocate and a life-long member of the Scouting movement.

Contacting Paul Ellingstad:

You can connect with Paul on Twitter and LinkedIn or send him an email

By Paul Ellingstad

Purpose often feels like a weighty subject.  Truth be told, it is. For millennia, great minds as well as common folk have pondered, debated, and offered points of view about purpose. The language and terminology may vary— meaning of life is one particularly well-trod version— but it’s all arguably within the realm of purpose.

Purpose is frequently described as the North Star for individuals (as well as organizations) searching to define their unique identity and reason for being.  In a disruptive, ever-changing world, there is comfort in the feeling that purpose is a constant– a strong, stable point of reference on which we can rely, no matter the winds of change swirling around us. But how constant is purpose, or should it be, in such a dynamic world as ours?  Is rigidity reasonable, or is adaptability a more preferrable trait for individuals and organizations seeking to define, declare, and live & work with clarity of purpose?

In this fast-moving age of sound bites and short attention spans, discovering (or defining) and conveying purpose and then living by it daily, seems challenging at the best of times. Perhaps our time & attention poverty has also contributed to the pursuit of short cuts and less sincere attempts to define purpose and live so? There is both a deep, thoughtful, seriousness to purpose, which defines and declares who we are and why we exist.  But to be useful, purpose also needs to be practical, applicable, and accessible—to everyone. It cannot be reserved for philosophical discussions or part of the branding work in business.  It is hard going to distil purpose—whether for individual or for organization—into something clear and true, which is then put it into practice. But recognizing that need and committing the time and effort to do it “right” is half the battle.  One long-time exemplar of “getting it right” is David Packard’s informal talk with HP employees in 1960.  Timeless.  A (much) more recent compilation of examples that are also codified into a blueprint of sorts is Putting Purpose into Practice. The consultancy SVI even has a playbook to assist aspiring businesses.

“Times they are a changin’”, and our purpose changes with the times as well.  Was your self-defined purpose (or aspiration) at the age of 18 the same today?  Does the 100-year-old company— or even 10 year old company— have the same customers, service offering, employees and investors, and mission now?  Adapting and evolving with the times should equally apply to purpose—if purpose is to be relevant and true.  Kira Newman’s illuminating work dives deeply into this through the lens of the individual. Through the organizational lens, while short-termism, e.g. quarterly focus is common criticism of business, the purpose evolution seems to take a bit longer. Fifty-two years ago, the Economist Milton Friedman (in)famously declared that the one and only social responsibility of business was to increase profits, often referred to now as “shareholder primacy” doctrine.  In 2019, the Business Roundtable published a new, redefined purpose of a corporation.  The progress of BR members’ progress remains closely watched and scrutinized.  The evolution of purpose—as declared by the Business Roundtable—provides a great example of both the timing (decades, not quarters!) typically involved in such change and also the nature of collective purpose.

Once in a while though, we can get a bit carried away—both individually as well as organizationally.  It’s useful to pause and reflect—do a bit of a sense check—if we’re getting too serious or even just completely off track with purpose. Sometimes the extrapolation of purpose just doesn’t cut the mustard… or the mayonnaise!

That said, purpose is extremely useful and powerful. It enables individuals and organizations to clarify vision, define identity, exist, and contribute in an intentional way.  We inherently associate purpose with judgements about value and goodness, but purpose is fundamentally descriptive, and in a complex, wildly dynamic world, purpose too adapts and evolves—despite the value we place on stability, durability, and certainty.  Purpose is both rock and wave— a steady foundation that grounds us and an enormous force in motion.  Embrace both the gravity of purpose and the lift it provides for how we live and work.

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