How Do You Define a Powerful Purpose?

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I think there’s no longer a question about whether it’s a good practice for a business to articulate a clear purpose. The question now is what makes a good purpose.

Dan Pink has become well known with his research concluding that purpose, in the sense of achieving a greater social good, is a huge motivator of employees. And Simon Sinek’s popular Ted Talk says we should focus on the “why” of our business rather than the “what” because customers are motivated to purchase and employees are motivated to perform based on your answer to why you do what you do. But does every business leader’s answer to “why” make a good purpose?

I once worked for a large trucking company that had a practice of sharing profits with employees through a generous bonus structure. There were three major divisions, and I remember one occasion where all employees were invited to hear the three leaders speak. They all covered the normal rhetoric on their strategy and financials, but their differentiation was in their explanation of why employees should be motivated. The first leader tried to pump us up by saying “let’s all work really hard and take home big bonus checks”. His words fell flat. The second one said “if we work really hard we’ll be rewarded with financial security”. He didn’t get too much reaction. The third said “I want everyone in this company (most of whom were blue collar truckers) to experience the American dream”. When he said this, you could feel the energy in the room shift. He evoked deep emotion in us, most of whom have ancestors who left their homes and came to this country (USA) sparked by a dream for a better life. We were ready to bend over backwards to help this guy be successful.

All three leaders used the same theme of financial rewards for employees, but only one hit the mark. And this is, of course, only one theme that can be inspirational. What is the key?

Defining a powerful purpose reminds me of the Five Whys used in process improvement. With this technique, you ask why a problem occurred, and when you get an answer, you ask why that occurred. You keep going until you get to the root cause of the problem. Using this technique in getting to a meaningful purpose, continue to ask why until you feel the answer in your heart. Why are big bonus checks important, because they provide some financial satisfaction. Why is financial satisfaction important, because it’s key to the American dream. When your answer strikes heartfelt emotion, you have arrived.

When a leader feels heartfelt emotion about a purpose, the emotion is infectious in the organization. Positive, heartfelt emotion does more than just inspire greater performance. It also creates an environment in which employees are sharper and more creative.

As elementary as this may sound, in order for leaders to arrive at a purpose that inspires the heart, the person doing the asking has to be able to detect heartfelt emotion. Lots of business people stay stuck in their heads and can’t do this. If you’re one of these people, become more aware of your heart by imagining your breath flowing into and out of your heart region. For most people, this will eventually evoke a warm tingling in the area of the heart. It’s this same tingling warmth that will be activated by an inspiring purpose.

It’s important to understand that when a particular purpose strikes the heart of one person, it doesn’t necessarily strike the heart of everyone. The Vice Chairman of Philip Morris, the large tobacco company, said in 1979, “I love cigarettes. It’s one of the things that makes life really worth living.” This formed the core of the company’s purpose, and sparked them to be the leader in their industry for many decades.  Lots of people would say this purpose doesn’t resonate with their heart, yet it worked for Philip Morris. Of course, if they had used the Five Whys, they may have reached a deeper purpose such as “to help preserve personal freedom of choice” that would have resonated with even more people.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Norman Wolfe  July 17, 2012


    Your blog hits the heart of the matter. When activity, the doing of life, is all we focus on, it is flat, automaton behavior, devoid on anything but Activity energy. When we act from a sense of purpose, when our activity emanates from the deeper Context of our lives it is imbued with another type of energy, often called passion. And this energy is infectious and sustaining through all the struggles we may face.

    I also agree that traveling the “Why” ladder can bring one down to that point of knowing one’s (or an organization’s) purpose. Another process I use is to ask what I call the “It’s A Wonderful Life” question. LIke in the movie “It’s A Wonderful LIfe one can explore the question of what would the world be missing if we didn’t exist.

  2. Gina Hayden  July 17, 2012

    Thanks Jackie – your posts and thinking are always a couple of steps ahead of the curve and this one is no different. You are already leading us on ‘let’s make this mainstream’. Thanks for this. I really resonated with “continue to ask why until you feel the answer in your heart.” Having just finished working with some leaders today, we could feel in the room that those connected to the ‘why’ purpose of why their teams should follow their purpose had a far greater chance of impacting other and creating higher performance in their teams.

  3. Kate McNeill  July 17, 2012

    Great article Jackie. In my current contract, i am present to how many workers are just working to pay the bills and get to friday and I noticed how attached I am to ‘making them connect to a higher purpose’. Maybe that purpose is what works for them but it does not seem to generate the kind of performance mindset that would create creative problem solving on some of our very big business risk areas. Any ideas/comments?

  4. Jackie Barretta  July 17, 2012

    Kate, I think it’s human nature to want to attach to a higher purpose, but lots of people have given up on it over time because it’s so hard to find in business.I’m glad to hear that the Millenial generation has a strong need to connect to a higher purpose (I hear that from lots of sources), and I hope they’ll never give up on it. One thing I had in mind but probably didn’t highlight enough in the article is that when people feel heartfelt emotions, they’re more creative. HeartMath has published lots of scientific discovery on that. So I believe that creating environments with heartfelt emotion, including heartfelt purposes, is key to solving our biggest challenges in business.

  5. Lu Phillips  July 18, 2012


    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify and tighten my point.

    At the level of the individual, a powerful purpose must certainly be heartfelt. Choosing a private school for my children to fulfill the powerful purpose of starting them on a successful life path is a very heartfelt example for me. However at the level of organization, the school itself may be committed to my individual purpose but they have policies, procedures, payroll, local business supporters and competitors, political interests, etc. They hire janitors and accountants that will never meet my children.

    Therefore a business does not require strict individual alignment to a purpose to the extent it needs to manage the conversation that the business itself is in the many worlds where it must succeed. All the inputs, heartfelt or otherwise, need a lighthouse beacon to get their bearing. From there the principles of Tribal Leadership help an organization to move across the gap from where they are to where they are committed to being as a collective.

  6. Sandra Baynton  July 18, 2012

    A very good article Jackie. It certainly gets you thinking! I personally think that people are more aware these days and will, either consciously or unconsciously, be looking for integrity and honesty. Whether that be in a statement of purpose or any other activity that impacts on their life. Bringing people together in a positive environment and asking them to interact and give something of themselves, must surely be more attainable if the speaker or the business in question, speaks from the heart. People are looking for something deeper these days and won`t be fooled by `pretenders` anymore.

  7. Angelo Sciarra  July 23, 2012

    I’ve worked in mainly in construction, so my perspective comes from that mindset! I found that most people were inspired by a call to serve the company! A sense that the company depended on them and that they could make the difference. A threat of competition winning the work also helped, but certainly a sense of urgency seemed to rally company “patriotism”! In a large company I worked for in the 80’s, there was a bonus system that created Leading Hands to operate like small business owners! Whilst it was a highly efficient and lucrative scheme at times, it created animosity, backstabbing and infighting! It wasn’t a pleasant environment to be in at all!
    I think what @Sandra said was great, people want people who will share their experience with them and be a part of the solution with them. I remember having to do a dangerous job once, I had to walk on a cable tray in the roof! I felt jittery about it! The business owner sensing this got up in the ceiling and did what he was asking me to do! It was inspiring! It was leadership and let me know that I had someone who understood where I was at and was willing, themselves to risk themselves and show the way through!

  8. Lowell Nerenberg  July 23, 2012

    Jackie, I am so glad I found you! We speak the same language, with similar contexts. Having a purpose for an organization about which the stakeholders are passionate is about the single most powerful energy source possible. There’s an allegory I retold in a brief blog post which illustrates this nicely. I hope it’s OK to post the link here:

  9. Denis Gorce-Bourge  August 5, 2012

    Hi Jackie, Thank you for this text. I can’t agree more. From my experience as a Coach and Trainer, I can feel how much this purpose is missing today.
    For most companies the mission statement is only words on a paper. People don’t believe and don’t trust their leaders anymore.

  10. Glen Hepker  August 5, 2012

    Great discussion, Jackie, thanks so much for sharing. In the ages-old health/wellness philosophy that I teach and endeavor to follow, answering the question, “what makes a powerful purpose,” can be first and foremost answered with the following: Acting Without Acting, i.e., doing the right thing for the right sake…without the need for selfish recognition or hidden agendas. Accordingly, nothing is more powerful than a ‘purpose’ which is rooted in this wonderfully healthful and selfless approach.

  11. Hally Rhiannon-Nammu  August 6, 2012

    Having a purpose provides the driver to gain the results. Without a real purpose focus is lost & success tends to be overlooked. The secret to having a purpose, often called the “why” has greater strength when linked to passion or within the emotional connection to the overall goal. Business is logical however, the person that runs it still is driven by passion & creativity. Add the reason for this to work in synergy success becomes a great by-product.


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