Leading with purpose


Aug. 10, 2021

Your personal leadership purpose can set the course for your effectiveness as a leader. Here, Truist Leadership Institute’s Eileen Hogan explains how to define your purpose—and how to stay aligned to it as you lead.

It’s very appropriate that Doug Rinker refers to his planned retirement as “repurposing” his life. Rinker, who has spent 30 years leading Winchester Equipment Company, an agricultural and industrial equipment sales and service company based in Winchester, Virginia, has a story that really brings to life the concept of leadership purpose.

Rinker turned to Truist Leadership Institute as he was putting the pieces of his succession plan in place and working to train the team who would lead the company next. They were hardworking, engaged, good people who valued teamwork, but things weren’t coming together as well as they could for the business.

“We just couldn’t get a level of satisfaction that we were moving in the right direction as a group, or, in most cases, individually,” Rinker says.

What was the solution? Clarifying their purpose and applying it to their work. The leaders became more effective at working with customers and with one another, and they felt more satisfied about their work.

“Tell our story, service our customers, be a great team, be a role model, and practice the Golden Rule.”

— Rinker’s purpose statement

Winchester Equipment’s experience mirrors that of hundreds of other companies studied in leadership research. In its 2018 Global Talent Trends study, the global benefits consulting firm Mercer found that 75% of employees who consider themselves to be thriving at work say their company has a strong sense of purpose that resonates with their personal values.

Some team members have even thanked Rinker and shared their personal stories of how the discussions of leadership purpose helped them. “As somebody who loves to teach, that just really rings my bell,” Rinker says. “When you’ve seen the light in the eye come on, then you know you’ve had a good day.”

Understanding leadership purpose

Many organizations have a mission statement or company values. Leadership purpose simply applies that concept to individuals. Getting clear about your leadership purpose and using it effectively helps you create better business outcomes and helps you strengthen your relationships with your colleagues, customers, and peers.

Consider these questions as you contemplate your leadership purpose:

  • What is the guiding star that helps me make decisions about what I spend time and energy on?
  • What kind of relationships do I want to build, and how do I want to impact people?
  • Why am I here? What impact do I want to create at work? In the world?

Talking with a leadership expert, a mentor, or a trusted peer about your answers to these questions can help you define your leadership purpose. Reflecting on the times when you felt you were being your best, most authentic self and were making a positive difference can also be part of the process. Your purpose might involve teaching, coaching, innovating, solving problems, or creating access to opportunity for others. These concepts can then be woven together into an expression of your individual leadership purpose.

Rinker’s purpose statement? “Tell our story, service our customers, be a great team, be a role model, and practice the Golden Rule.”

One thing I’ve noticed when I talk to people who have defined their leadership purpose: Though the words are always different, when you boil them down, they almost always relate to impacting other people in a positive way.

How to use your leadership purpose once you’ve defined it

Why is clarifying our leadership purpose helpful? From a neurological perspective, acting with purpose douses our brain with a flood of positive emotions. And that flood heightens the ability of our brain’s attentional system to look for positive things around us and opportunities that we might not have seen otherwise.

Leadership purpose helps us see the bigger picture. It can help us prioritize—to determine what we spend energy on, what we don’t spend energy on, what we’ll tolerate, and what we will not tolerate.

Here’s a surprising tactic to reinforce your purpose: Let other people know what your leadership purpose is so they can help hold you accountable. They can remind you when your actions are off-purpose and help you identify ways to be more on-purpose.

When you use purpose effectively and consistently, it helps you show up more consistently for others. They start to know what to expect from you, and your relationships with them strengthen.

Leadership listen

Truist Leadership Institute creates a podcast for leaders called “Leadership Amplitude.” Available on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts, the program covers a range of timely, thought-provoking, and useful insights for leaders. Episodes 9 through 12 take a deeper dive into the topic of leadership purpose with TLI experts. Listen and subscribe today!

Recommended reads on leadership and leadership purpose

The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results
by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter
Harvard Business Review Press, 2018

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Sinek
Portfolio, 2009

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
by Carol S. Dweck
Random House, 2006