Leading from Purpose: Clarity and the Confidence to Act When It Matters Most

by Nick Craig

Clock Icon 19 minute read


I didn’t know Nick Craig or his work when he approached me at a conference several years ago and said, “We should talk.”

I had just finished delivering a three-hour workshop to 250 CEOs, and I was equal parts wiped out and pumped up. I stared at him for a few seconds, wondering how I could possibly segue his invitation-directive into a normal introduction, and right as I began to say, “I’m Brené. Nice to meet you,” he said, “It was an incredible afternoon. Thank you. I know you’re probably tired and energized—I want to talk about your amazing alchemist energy. And the tired part.”

The rest of the conversation was weird and strangely compelling. He talked to me about his work and then offered to help me find my purpose. I didn’t know why or what was happening at that moment, but I immediately said yes as I fought back tears. I rarely say yes.

A couple of years and many long conversations later, I offered to write the foreword for this book. But there was one condition. I told Nick that I wanted to frame it like a Surgeon General’s warning. I thought he’d laugh but he said, “Yep. Makes total sense.”

Here’s the label I think the publisher should put on the outside of this book:

Caution: This is a book about purpose. Do this work and it will change the way you live, love, parent, and lead. However, you will not be able to forget, block, or unlearn your purpose, and trying to walk away from the reason you’re here on this earth may cause anxiety, resentment, confusion, self-doubt, and persistent, low-grade feelings of “what in the hell am I doing?” Once you live your purpose, you can’t unlive it.

Nick’s purpose work isn’t magic. It’s the gift of clarity, focus, and confidence. I opened my heart and mind to my purpose work and, in turn, it’s rearranged my life. My purpose is now the filter that I use to evaluate what work I do, and, more importantly, what I don’t do. Do I live my purpose perfectly? No. Do I ever choose fear or scarcity over my purpose? Sometimes. But when I do, things fall apart. Including me at times.

I’ve spent my entire life wanting to be in service of something bigger. The most significant transformation for me has been learning (and relearning) that my most valuable contributions happen when I’m in my purpose.

And, I take back what I said about magic. Nick’s work does provide clarity, focus, and confidence. And a little magic.


In 2007, I stood before a group of senior leaders at a Fortune 50 company. I had been asked to teach a session on purpose as one of the modules in a two-day program on authentic leadership. At the time, even I thought that purpose’s connection to leadership was questionable. After all, purpose was just one of 12 chapters in the fieldbook on authentic leadership that I had helped Bill George write a few years before.

Back then, I thought purpose was a poor cousin to other focus areas of leadership, such as knowing the crucible stories that shape us as leaders, clarifying our values, or leveraging our underutilized strengths. Those were the winners, so I emphasized them and spent less time with purpose.

Thus, when the firm asked me to include a module on purpose, I balked. They insisted, and with many reservations, I agreed. They were right, and I was wrong. And between 2007 and 2009, I had several opportunities to teach authentic leadership to the most challenging audience of leaders in a very challenging time in the company’s history. The company’s stock fell from 56 to 6. There could be no better litmus test of what was most useful to this group of leaders.

The way alumni described it, in the past, when extensive personnel cuts had become unavoidable or a dramatic change of direction had become necessary, there had always been an understanding that those who led through the difficult times and made the hard decisions would be taken care of. This time, however, things were different. The members of the top team faced dire circumstances on all fronts, and the only thing anyone knew for certain was that no one would be getting out unscathed. So, what do you do when your stock options have hit rock bottom, everyone’s salary is questionable, and the entire future of the organization hangs in the balance?

Imagine what you would do.

One leader’s answer stunned me. He said, “Look, I realized I didn’t have any promises of stock options, bonuses, or promotions to help us anymore. All the external motivators I had depended on in the past were gone. The economic chaos we had all worried about was now at my dinner table. The only thing I could stand on was my purpose as a leader from the program. So, I told my team that I don’t have anything to give them this time except for what I stand for, and my purpose is and always has been to be the white-water raft guide who gets you safely to the other side. If you don’t want to do this I will understand, but if you stay we will go through the most challenging 12 months ever and I make no promises on the end game.”

During that year this leader and his team did what they needed to do. They made many hard decisions that balanced investments in future growth with painful cuts in head count to keep the doors open. At the time, although the business was starting to show positive numbers, the big success was that he still had the same team and they were more trusting and connected than any team he had ever worked with before.

As a well-trained cynic, I figured I was looking at a 1-in-1,000 occurrence. It turned out I was looking at a 1-in-10 occurrence, and that was during a period in which we spent very little time on purpose in the program.

Fast-forward to 2009. Paul Polman had just taken over as CEO of Unilever, then a $40 billion consumer products company competing with Procter & Gamble and Nestlé. Polman put forth a bold vision of revenue growth while dramatically reducing the firm’s environmental footprint over 10 years—this for an organization that made everything from salad dressing to laundry detergent.

We were asked to run the leadership transformation program for the top 1,200 leaders. Once again, purpose was one of eight topics. However, in an environment in which each leader had to find a way to do what had never been attempted before, purpose became the element that made the impossible possible. The typically mundane process of creating individual leadership development plans was transformed when each one got reviewed by the CEO and top executives; there, in bold letters, was the leader’s purpose.

Eighteen to 24 months later, as alumni returned to the program, their stories and the impact of purpose once again surprised me. They defined their goals and approached issues in new and different ways, clearly affected by their purpose. Leaders were promoted to positions they would have never gotten before, or decided to stay in a job and do it right as opposed to climbing the proverbial ladder. They had authentic conversations with their bosses about what needed to be done to turn the business around. All this happened just because of a set of words that for them captured their “purpose.” One leader said, “You know, given my purpose, what is clear for me is if things really aren’t challenging I get bored and when I get bored I don’t live my purpose. Growing the region by 15 percent over three years is boring. Now, doubling the business—that’s a challenge, and that’s what I am going to do, and here is how we will do it.” Truth be told, he didn’t double it, but he reached way above 15 percent, and the changes he made in the business, as well as the way in which he led, created a very different arc than he would have traced if he had not known his purpose.

Seeing story after story like this forced me to realize that something was happening with purpose that was different from all the other beautiful parts of authentic leadership. Purpose isn’t “one of 12 elements.” Purpose is the stage on which all the other elements (values, strengths, self-awareness, etc.) create great leadership. If leadership were on stage, purpose is what gives you Broadway and London’s Globe Theater. Without it, you get your local production of King Lear.

Leading from purpose for real people

Since 2009, we have taken our work on purpose and authentic leadership (how you live your purpose) around the world to retailers in Australia, oil and gas engineers in Oklahoma, engineering and scientific organizations in Boston, pharmaceutical companies in Sweden, West Point faculty, and many more leaders and organizations. Each time, I’ve looked out at the audience of intimidating, world-class senior leaders and said to myself, “This will be the place where purpose is the wrong shoe on the wrong foot.” I have been positively surprised every time.

If you are reading this and thinking, “But I am not a leader,” then think again. If you make decisions that affect others in any part of your life, then you’re leading—even if your current story is something different. You can lead without clarity of purpose or with it… which is it going to be?

This book is written from the gritty realities of senior executives who make everything from peanut butter to special pumps for oil and gas exploration. In it you will find a down-to-earth and accessible orientation to purpose and how it can have a significant impact on leading in the twenty-first century—not to mention compelling stories of what has happened as executives have stepped into living their purpose.

Great causes such as ending poverty and injustice are wonderful ways to express purpose, but real leaders need to align themselves with something that works just as well for managing unruly customers, competitors that won’t sit still, and global events that turn strategy into dust. Sounds more like your world? Most of our lives include interacting with family and friends, getting paid a fair price for what we do, raising kids, getting laid off, hiring people we find out can’t walk the talk, giving someone a break when nobody else will, and the list goes on. These are the places where purpose helps us the most. Most of what is “sold” as purpose does us all a great disservice by making us feel that we are less than those who “have it” and that we must either be bathed in light or give up trying. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What if you were already full of purpose but you didn’t know it? Good news! You are and always will be. You can and will run away from your purpose, but for most of us it is always there, waiting for us to remember and invite it back in. We just need to slow down long enough for it to be found. It’s the only thing that will never reject you, judge you, dump you, or betray you, even though we will do all those things to it in the process of coming to truly own the one thing that defines our unique gift in this lifetime. My hope is that as you read the stories and examples based on over 100 in-depth interviews of leaders from every walk of life, you will begin to see what has been unseen in your journey as a leader: the purpose that is yours.

Leading is about translating what is possible into reality. Whether you know it or not, you already serve others in a unique way that changes your reality and that of others. You may be thinking, “Now that’s a stretch. I have no clue what my purpose is, so why talk about living it?” The good news is that by discovering how you are already living it, you will be able to “see” it.

Over the last 10 years, we have worked with more than 10,000 senior executives to help them discover and have the courage to live their purpose. For 95 percent of them it wasn’t about quitting their job and going to work for Save the Children, or leaving their spouse, or telling their boss to stuff it; it was about realizing that purpose is present in every moment, and we can choose to operate from it or not. It’s evident in how we interact with the challenges of the moment, not in what role, title, or office we have.

Purpose will make you feel curious, courageous, humbled, and inspired, as well as vulnerable, scared, confused, and much more… but with purpose, it all has meaning; without it, sometimes life is great and other times it’s not.

I think that you’ll enjoy reading the many stories of people who have led from purpose. Most of them are not famous people or CEOs; rather, these individuals are from all levels, of all ages, and from every part of the globe. Each was willing to spend hours being interviewed. The leaders whose stories ended up in this book spent even more time with me, refining our insights and going deeper into the truth of what it means to lead from purpose. I had not talked to or seen many of the people I interviewed for 5 or 10 years, so each interview was a journey of discovery for both of us.

How this book is structured

By seeing how others have traveled, you, too, will have a better sense of your purpose and what leading from purpose can represent. More importantly, you will be able to step more fully each day into living it and leading others on the journey with you.

Part One of this book focuses on what purpose is and why it’s important. It describes three pathways we have found that help us see how it “leads” us, and shares many examples of what others have found. Note that although we communicate our purpose through language and a set of words that we call our purpose statement, the reality is that the statement is just words and our purpose is much more than words. The words are like a key that unlocks a door. The key by itself, like a purpose statement, has no value. It’s the room that we access because of the key that matters, the purpose that has always been leading us. We have found three powerful means of not only discovering the key but, more importantly, stepping into the room of purpose:

Magical moments, from childhood to early adulthood

The most challenging experiences in our life—our crucibles

A passion that has fueled us over time

Part Two guides you to finding your own purpose. By looking at some examples of authentic purpose statements and working through some simple exercises, you will be able to identify—or at least come close to—your own purpose statement. You may want to do this before reading about the impact of purpose in the lives of real leaders, or you may want to simply skim this section and return to it later.

Finally, Part Three drills down on the reality of what it’s like to lead from purpose. This isn’t a Disney story; let this be a warning to those who are looking for purpose to magically make all your problems go away. You need to go to some other book if that’s what you are looking for. The world of real purpose is much more confronting, compelling, and in the end satisfying than any quick fix. You will be stretched and tested in so many ways that, if having it easy is your goal, you should take a pass on purpose.

But the result will be worth the effort. A life lit by purpose is one of clarity and meaning. You don’t need purpose when things are going well, but when the tough decisions must be made, purpose points to the answer. Most important, others will want to follow you when purpose is leading you, and you are leading from your purpose.

Leading from Purpose self-assessment

Before taking you through your purpose-driven leadership journey, I welcome you to take the Leading from Purpose Self-Assessment at www.coreleader.com/survey. At the end of the book I will encourage you to take it again, and see the impact of purpose.



Chapter 1

Are you willing to be led by someone who is not clear about their purpose? What if that person is you?

Mind you, I’m not talking about an objective. You can probably rattle off your objectives in two seconds. But do you have clarity about what purpose is leading you? If you’ve gotten this far, something must be working. So, wouldn’t it be nice if you had a clear idea of what that is? Face it: If you don’t know it, you can’t fully live it. And if you aren’t living it, you can’t lead from it.

It’s worth figuring it out. When you get clarity of purpose, you see the world through a unique filter, and this gives you the opportunity to be much more creative and innovative about how you lead in your life. It creates “meaning” from events and actions that, over time, shape your impact on the world. If you study the people you admire most in history, the ones who had the most impact—whether it’s Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, or Steve Jobs—you’ll notice that each operated from a very different view of the world compared to those around them, and then they got the world to see things their way.

You are more than your role

William Shakespeare reminds us of what our lives will consist of when we lack clarity of purpose. According to these well-known lines from As You Like It, we are all actors in a play.

All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Today our seven ages move from school days through college and graduate school, to the wisdom of senior roles, to retirement and inevitable death. The modern version of this play includes frequent flyer miles, stock options, and the possibility of staying on people’s cell-phone “Favorites” list long after we are gone. No matter what costumes we wear, Shakespeare shows us what the unexamined life looks like, the journey without purpose.

The challenge for many of us is that our identity and sense of self are based on our role, title, profession, house, or car, which are all fleeting and fragile by nature.

I have spent most of the last 10 years with people who have the big jobs. The problem is, many feel lost, struggling, with a sense of misplaced identity. They can’t say it because everyone else is congratulating them on their success. What they loved wasn’t the title or the job; it was the work they did and the impact they made. The more we see the impact of our work on others, the more meaning we get from it. The higher we go, the farther away we find ourselves from the people and things we impact.

Thus, clarity of meaning from within becomes even more important. No one can take your purpose away from you; it is your real identity. Purpose has deep resilience and staying power in a way that nothing else can or will. Who are you beyond what you do? Purpose helps us answer this question. Purpose is the deep well that always has water.

We are brought up in the context of our childhood, culture, and education; much of who we are is the result of our circumstances. All the events that happen around us shape us. But, eventually, we must ask ourselves: What is steering us on this journey as we go through life?

This book is filled with the stories of people who have rediscovered the purpose that is leading them and the impact that is the outcome of this discovery. Here is an excellent example of someone who used his purpose to step out of the script that had been handed to him.

Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, was regarded as a high-potential leader at Unilever (corporate owner of Ben & Jerry’s). He grew up in the ice cream business and was the fix-it guy, the one you go to when a turnaround is needed. Because of this, he quickly rose through the management ranks. By the time he reached the top job at Ben & Jerry’s, he had worked in over 30 countries and moved more times than he could remember. “Get it, fix it, and move on” was his modus operandi. After only 18 months at Ben & Jerry’s, he had taken a business that was in single-digit decline and turned it into double-digit growth. The iconic brand that everyone loved was back in the game and winning.

Now he was being groomed for the big prize of senior vice president of ice cream, overseeing operations in multiple countries—the one he had spent his whole career preparing for, the final ascension to the top ranks of a multibillion-dollar consumer goods company. Here he would get the significant raise, stock options, and global title, a role that defines success.

Only one thing stood in his way: his purpose. Timing is everything in life, and now that he was about to jump, he got the chance to clarify his purpose:

JOSTEIN—Helping people thrive in paradox and ambiguity for things that really matter.

Remember that the purpose statement is just a set of words. Yet these words are like a key to unlock a door to the room of purpose that leads each of us. For Jostein, his room of purpose revealed an important dilemma. The promotion would put him beyond doing work that really mattered and into managing others who would. In all his jobs, Jostein had saved people’s jobs, enabled groups to do things they didn’t believe they could do, and developed those reporting to him who otherwise would have been left behind. He was happiest when all hell was breaking loose with no end in sight. Whether sailing in a storm or fixing a business that everyone thought was broken, Jostein was your man. Now he had found a stage to live his purpose, but it didn’t fit with the current plan.

Purpose doesn’t wait or care about the plan, it whispers in our ear and says… follow me. Leading isn’t about going where everyone else is going, it’s about creating something that didn’t previously exist.

Jostein was used to creating five-year strategic plans solely as a means of funding his next year’s budget. Now his purpose was asking for much more: Stay for a long time and do something that matters. Ben & Jerry’s had a social agenda that was like no other. Climate change, fair trade, and non-GMO sourcing were all ideas that needed leading. If he stayed, they might really take off, and if he left they might falter as the new CEO spent 12 months just getting up to speed. Here was an opportunity to do something that really mattered.

Many of us have stood in Jostein’s shoes—do you follow your heart or your head? As my colleague Bill George so eloquently says, “The greatest distance we will ever travel is between our head and heart.”

Listening to his purpose, Jostein did the one thing that no one expected. He turned down the six-figure raise, stock options, and everything else that went with the promotion and decided to stay at Ben & Jerry’s. Not only did he decide to stay, he bought a house for the first time in his life, having moved every two years up until then. He was all-in.

According to Jostein, creating a five-year strategy when you know you will be in charge throughout all five years is very different from drafting something that gets you what you need now that others will fix later. Jostein doesn’t take all the credit for Ben & Jerry’s success; he is the first to say that he is just an enabler for the magical work that others do. But, had he not been the steady hand that stayed seven-plus years, there is a long list of things we probably wouldn’t have seen from Ben & Jerry’s, among them the following:

Double-digit growth each year in a declining overall market

100 percent fair trade sourcing

100 percent non-GMO sourcing

Ben & Jerry’s also embraced climate justice advocacy, including endorsing carbon pricing that works and lobbying political leaders to support United Nations climate change initiatives. Jostein was even hugged by Al Gore at the United Nations Paris climate change meeting.

Jostein could have taken the big promotion and continued his success at Unilever’s corporate headquarters. Or he could have moved home to Europe and found another opportunity. Purpose is most valuable to us when there are no right answers, just choices for which time alone will give us the clarity to choose wisely. The gift of operating from purpose is that we know what to do. The challenge is that we know, and the world may not be happy with us as a result. In Jostein’s case, his success two or three years down the road made the decision to stay look easy in hindsight. At the time, however, his bosses, his wife, and his kids didn’t see his decision as the right one. You know you’re in the world of purpose when you have sleepless nights and challenging discussions that don’t have easy answers, and you’ve got to do it anyway.

In the moments in which we must make the hardest choices in our life, do we follow the advice of others or the voice within? The challenge for most of us is we don’t have a clear inner voice that we trust. We have multiple voices in our heads and they rarely sing in harmony. If you don’t know it, you can’t live it. And if you aren’t living it, you can’t lead from it.

Why is purpose so important now?

Purpose isn’t a new idea. In the second century, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his “Meditations.” His reflections on life, leadership, and dealing with bureaucracy and hypocrisy are ageless, as are his thoughts on the importance of purpose: “Everything came into being for a purpose and is drawn toward the achievement of its purpose.” Yet, even though it’s a very old idea, most of our parents never talked about their purpose. They talked about their desires, dreams, aspirations, and accomplishments, but rarely about purpose. So why should we pay any more attention to purpose than our parents or anybody else since Marcus Aurelius’s times?

One reason is that there is so much recent research and information demonstrating the power of purpose. Over the past five years, there has been an explosion of interest in purpose in the business world. Harvard Business School’s head of strategy, Cynthia Montgomery, has eloquently argued that a leader’s most important role is to be a steward of his or her organization’s purpose. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, has described purpose as the pathway to flourishing. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, which summarizes 50 years of research on what motivates us in the workplace, identifies purpose as one of three keys to exceptional performance in the twenty-first century (autonomy and opportunity for mastery are the other two). Research on women leaders by Herminia Ibarra concludes that clarity of purpose is essential to holding on to your identity as the world tries to turn you into one of the boys.

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