Do you actually believe in something larger than your compensation, your career trajectory or your next success?
I often tell young leaders, if their work has no meaning or satisfaction, they are better off quitting and sitting on the beach until they decide what they want to do.
Many people’s work is completely disconnected from their values and their purpose. This lack of purpose isn’t something to deal with by working with a nonprofit in your spare time. If you don’t take action to address this disconnect, it can become like an insidious cancer that eats at your soul. Long-run, a lack of purpose can lead to burnout, poor decision-making and even moral derailment.
Understanding Your Purpose
Your purpose is the genuine deeper meaning in your work. It reflects whyyou do what you do.
Understanding your purpose is essential to becoming a better leader. People who lead with a sense of purpose that is aligned with their company’s purpose make better long-term decisions and are more authentic.
But this is not as easy as it sounds. Discerning your purpose takes a combination of introspection and real-world experiences before you can determine where you want to devote your energies.
The first step to knowing your purpose is to understand your life story. We all face times of crisis, pain or rejection in our lives. Reflecting on the life you’ve lived helps you to discover your True North – the beliefs, values and principles most important to you.
Before you take on a leadership role, ask yourself: “What motivates me to lead this organization?” If the honest answers are simply power, prestige and money, you are at risk of being trapped by external gratification as your source of fulfillment.
This never works. Why? Simply, you can never have enough money, fame or recognition. When you give someone else the power to decide if you’re successful (whether it’s the Forbes 400 list or an invitation to Davos), you lose. If you allow some external force to define your success, you have essentially abdicated your soul.
There is a deep voice inside you that yearns to bring your unique gifts to this world. If you neglect that voice, you create deep misalignments that eventually will surface.
Purpose at Work
Ken Frazier traveled a unique road en route to becoming CEO of Merck, the leading pharmaceutical research company. Born before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Frazier’s grandfather was a slave in South Carolina. He sent his son, Frazier’s father, to live in Philadelphia. With no formal education, Frazier’s father became a janitor, yet taught himself to read, reading two newspapers a day. In spite of his limited opportunities, he had a profound influence on Frazier’s life.
After his mother died when he was 12, Frazier and his sisters had to fend for themselves after school, avoiding the gangs that dominated the streets outside his house. “I learned very early from my father that one has to be one’s own person and not go along with the crowd,” Frazier says. His father asked him, “Kenny, how are you going to carry on your grandfather’s narrative of being free and your own person? You better do what you know is right, and not be fixated on what other people think of you.”
While studying at on Penn State scholarship, Frazier decided he wanted “to become a great lawyer like Thurgood Marshall, affecting social change.” At Harvard Law School, he was acutely aware he wasn’t from the same social class as his classmates. He wryly notes, “Lloyd Blankfein [CEO of Goldman Sachs] and I were the only students who ‘were not of the manor born.'”
Shortly after he joined Merck, Frazier took on the extremely difficult task of defending Merck from over 40,000 lawsuits filed after the pain drug Vioxx was withdrawn from the market due to alleged cardiovascular problems. Frazier did so successfully, catapulting him into the CEO’s chair where he faced a greater challenge: short-term shareholders pressured him to cut back Merck’s research as several of its competitors were doing. Frazier stayed the course, committing to spend a minimum of $8 billion per year on research in order to pursue cures for devastating diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Reflecting on his sense of purpose, Frazier explains, “Merck’s purpose is aligned with my personal sense of who I want to be and what I hope to contribute to the world. At Merck, you have the opportunity to make tangible contributions to humanity. There’s a yearning in all of us to leave something meaningful behind, because we know we have a short time on earth. Merck gives me the chance to leave something to people 20, 50 or even 100 years from now because we did the right things today.”
Asked what his father would say about his remarkable success, Frazier says modestly, “He’d say, ‘The boy did what he was supposed to do.'”
Turning Purpose Into Action
Your leadership purpose is not meaningful until it is applied to solving problems you encounter in the real world. When you align your personal purpose with an organization’s mission, you unlock the full potential of people in the organization.
That’s what I tried to do at Medtronic where we connected employees’ True North with the company mission of “restoring health, alleviating pain and extending life.” My successors, especially current CEO Omar Ishrak, have pursued this mission with vigor, contributing to the 100 times increase in the company’s market value over the past 26 years. More importantly, the number of people each year restored to full health has grown from 300,000 to 15 million.
As long as you focus on your True North, understand your purpose and use it to make a difference in the world, you can leave a legacy that inspires those who follow.
This article was originally posted 10/21/15 on Huffington Post.