Lead With Purpose (Not Just Position)

Team members might comply because of a position, but they will mobilise behind a compelling purpose.

This week Seth Godin released a brilliant article on redefining the work you’ve chosen to do from ‘have to’ to ‘get to’. It’s a subtle but important perspective shift from obligation to opportunity. While Seth’s article focused on this at a personal level, it sparked my thinking about what this looks like in leadership. 

In my life and career I’ve encountered two very different approaches to leading people towards action.

The first approach is usually framed through the lens of ‘If You Don’t’. The leader highlights the consequences that await if a person does not comply. They rely on the power that comes from their position but, in doing so, people only feel ‘forced to’ take action. Alternatively they try to persuade people with the guilt of what might happen if they don’t take action, but I’ve only ever seen people feeling like they ‘have to’ when driven by guilt. There’s a better approach.

The second, and much more successful approach, is framed through the lens of “If we do”. The leader takes time to create shared meaning with their team by creating a line of sight between their individual actions and the bigger picture outcome. People are inspired and can get passionate about how they can play their part in the process. They don’t just have to, they ‘want to’ be part of this. The leader creates a clear and compelling vision that gives people purpose in their work and as a result people take action because they ‘get to’ be a part of it. 

When you’re trying to persuade people to take action or leaning on your position to create movement, it will only ever feel forced and pushed on people. But when you take the time and dig deep to create a compelling purpose that people can get passionate about, that’s what pulls and mobilises people towards action. 

If you want people to comply then tell them what happens ‘if they don’t’ take action. If you want to mobilise people then tell that what happens ‘if we do’.