The Leadership Series | #6 ‘A Good Leader Gives People a Sense of Purpose’

In one of the earlier posts we saw how leaders are able to articulate their vision to their team-mates. Building this vision is critical if a leader needs to provide a sense of shared purpose to each and every member of the team.

What is a purpose? Purpose is the reason we walk into office each day. It is the reason that we switch on our computers to do a task. For many people in the industry this is, ‘Because I have to. That’s my job’. In many others it is ,’Because I have no other option’ and in others it could be ‘Because I am afraid of losing my job’. All these reasons are negatively oriented. A purpose must be positive. It must connect to the deepest part of who we are. It must resonate with our needs and our growth. Therefore, we begin to recognize that a purpose is a positive compelling reason that makes people do what they do and bring the best of their abilities to do so.

A leader can start inculcating a sense of purpose by clearly articulating a vision. We saw it in the previous post. Where do we want to take this team? Usually, this is linked to profit and efficiency parameters. For instance, “profitability of this group must reach so many million dollars” OR “we want to reduce defects by 20% over the next quarter”. These are nice to have – but hardly motivates people. Never confuse banal statistics with having a vision. A vision must be something all encompassing. It is ethereal. Often something that the company or the team cannot achieve in one lifetime. Excellent examples could be “eliminating poverty in the world” OR “we want to make sure that every Indian has an automobile”. They key here is sincerity. You cannot keep talking big and then act in a manner that is greedy and self-centered. No. There must be an alignment in your vision and your behavior and your actions.

Once the vision is clearly articulated, the job of a leader is to make it a mantra that everyone in the organization directs their physical and mental action towards. This requires people to trust the leadership as well and believe in what they say. How do you go about aligning your employees to your vision? Trust. Trust is crucial if you want to change actions. A classic example is that of Andon Chords that Toyota had installed on their production lines. It was a means of empowering the ordinary worker on the assembly line. It was a symbol of trust. Quoting from Paul Collier’s excellent book, ‘The future of capitalism’:

Decades previously, Toyota has pioneered a new style of relationships with its workforce. Ordinary workers on the assembly line were organized into small teams called ‘quality circles’, and given the responsibility for quality control… The key step was to ask each group to spot faults as soon as possible on its stretch of the line. The mantra promoted by the management was ‘faults are treasures’. If a worker spotted a fault, what should he do about it? The most dramatic step taken by Toyota management was to install Andon chords, hanging down all along the assembly line. Any worker on the assembly line who spotted a fault was to pull the nearest chord, which would instantly halt the entire line. By its nature, assembly line production is so integrated that stopping the line is spectacularly costly. In the Toyota factory, it cost $10,000 per minute.

Excerpt from ‘The Future of Capitalism’ by Paul Collier

From the above example we see empowering employees to take important decisions, builds trust. However, there must be a precedence of trust in the organization. When General Motors installed Andon cords, its American workforce pulled the chords out of spite against the management. The management made them dummy and finally had them uninstalled. Therefore, you need to first build trust before taking any major actions in the organization.

How can trust be built?

First, the leader must show signs of apology for any sins of the past. They must be genuinely sorry for what has happened in the past. Admitting and acknowledging errors that were perhaps not theirs requires immense maturity, but must be done. Leaders who are deeply connected to themselves, can do this easily, for they know they lose nothing by being apologetic. And this must be genuine. People can easily pick up on emotions.

Second, the leader must show a big gesture of sacrifice. This could be getting their hands dirty and doing what an ordinary employee does, or something much more drastic such as taking a personal pay cut, or opening up many more benefits to the employees. Definite actions taken in the benefit of the others help establish that trust.

Third, once the trust deficit has been bridged, the leader can go about positively affirming trust. This can be done by getting employees to take greater decisions in the company. By making people’s voice heard and feel that they matter. Open houses, interacting with each team and generally allowing people to voice their ideas, concerns and fears are crucial. When differences arise, communication plays a vital role. Explaining to people why certain difficult decisions must be taken, goes a long way in building trust. More than what one does, what matter is how one’s intention is perceived. Be transparent – even in your mistakes.

Once trust has been established, the leader can begin to gently nudge people in the direction of where they want to take the company. Articulating this provides the purpose that people have been so desperately looking for. Mahatma Gandhi had this ability to do precisely this. During the independence struggle he used to say, “Are you a teacher? Teach for independence!”. “Are you a cleaner? Clean for a strong and resurgent India”. This ability to align disparate roles and actions of people into a single agenda is the trait of great leaders. In order to build this sense of purpose, trust in essential. In order to build trust, fears have to be ameliorated, in order to ameliorate fears and mistrust, sacrifice and hard work is essential.

Keep in mind, that not everybody would be willing to go along your plans. There will be people who will actively sabotage your ideas and actions. Expect this. People are not saints. Such people must be dealt with in a manner of firmness. Their existence can destroy the vision and the sense of purpose. Sometimes hard decisions must be taken in the larger interests of the organization and that is perfectly okay. But my own experience shows that most, if not all, will align with your vision. Most people are looking for larger purpose to channelize their energy.

So identify your vision, articulate a sense of shared purpose and build trust in the organization. This should transform the company and yourself along the way.

Somewhere in North Switzerland. 2019.

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