Stories of deeper purpose

John's reflections, leadership 1 Comment

These past few weeks, I have been travelling, and having some noteworthy experiences in places such as Boston, Buenos Aires, and Mendoza, Argentina. This week, I will be speaking at several venues in Uruguay. At some point in the coming weeks, after taking time to reflect a bit on some of my learning from these places, I plan to write about it all and post some videos.

For today, though, I continue on the theme of leadership, storytelling, and larger purpose, this time applying it all to the world of business and organizations.

Stories of deeper purpose: Stories of deeper purpose are the ultimate motivator for any workgroup, the force that drives a team to exceptional performance. 

In 1997, Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman published Organizing Genius, a study of the characteristics of remarkable groups that achieve results that would seem impossible, groups such as the scientists of the Manhattan Projects during the Second World War. According to the authors, one of the distinguishing elements of these great groups is that they always “think they are on a mission from God, doing something urgent and monumental.”

I have also heard it expressed that these groups are on a heroic journey with a purpose. They somehow feel that they are accomplishing something far greater than their daily tasks; they are slaying dragons, winning princesses, or discovering magic elixirs.

In my view, one of the most important functions of any group’s leader is to craft and tell the stories of dragons and princesses that supply the emotion—the sense of pride, of importance, and of deeper meaning.  For example, at stockbroker Charles Schwab in the 1990s, CEO David Pottruck refused to see his company’s work as managing money.  Rather, Schwab people were the custodians of their client’s dreams.

I recall hearing Pottruck some years ago in an interview, speaking passionately about creating a corporate culture together with the company’s employees, a culture where everyone felt they were part of something important. By defining a cause, not merely a business, a mission as opposed to a job, he was able to convince employees that their work was truly essential to their customers’ well-being, that what they did every day mattered deeply to the world.  As he described it: “Around here we think we’re curing cancer.”

The Macintosh group and their sense of purpose: Of course, one of the masters of this type of motivational discourse—combining belonging and shared identity with a deep feeling of pride and purpose—was Steve Jobs in the early years of Apple Computer.  Under Jobs, the Mac team became the ultimate heroic underdog, taking on not only competitors but the nonbelievers inside Apple as well.  They were rebels; their spiritual leader, Jobs, raised the pirate flag outside the Macintosh building, and he challenged team Macintosh to put “a dent in the universe.”

Jobs’ discourse was extremely effective, since engaging followers means not only defining a shared identity that resonates with followers, but also connecting them to a deeper purpose.

The Macintosh group achieved truly remarkable results by combining all the elements cited above.  Not only did the members feel part of a special group, they were convinced that their shared mission was important, not only for themselves but also for all of society.  Jobs fanned the inspirational campfires by telling tales of a common enemy, using images that evoke epic struggles of light and darkness, much like Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings.  Casting IBM in the role of the dark foe, Jobs pushed his software development team to superhuman limits. 

As deadlines approached and programmers worked bleary-eyed around the clock, their leader employed a classic “good and evil” storyline to energize these dedicated team members: “If we don’t do it, IBM is going to take over.  If having really great products, much better products than theirs, isn’t enough to compete with them, then they’ll have the whole thing.  They’ll have the greatest monopoly of all time…If we don’t do this, nobody can stop IBM.”

In the age of information, where workers are drowning in facts and data, people don’t want more rational argument.  They long to be part of something significant; they need a story that explains what it all means and where they fit in. 

Leaders like Steve Jobs use storytelling to tap into the basic human desire to do something meaningful.  As he elucidates: “What Apple has really been to me is an opportunity to express some deep feeling about wanting to contribute meaning.  I really believe that people have a desire to put something back, to give something in a greater way…In a sense, that’s part of the joy of Apple Computer…[The company is] a sort of framework…where if it’s done right, people can really put something back.”

When we consider the remarkable life and career of Steve Jobs, we often focus on his sense for marketing, his creativity, or his skill as a presenter and showman. While these aspects of Jobs’ business talent are certainly interesting to study, to me his greatest leadership attribute was his ability to bring others into a dream, to provide a deeper purpose that extended far beyond corporate results or personal financial gain.

One Response to Stories of deeper purpose

  1. Elise Watson says:

    I enjoyed reading this John, it really puts having a mission into a greater, more powerful context.

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