Opinion

Being on purpose at work

Why are you here on this earth?

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Why are you here on this earth?

That's the kind of question you might confront in church, a philosophy seminar, or a self-help book – but certainly not in the executive suite. Yet a recent experience I had convinced me that, at work, it can trigger not just existential musing but a purpose-driven awareness that drives success. The concrete answers it generates can rearrange the lives of individuals, organizations, and even nations for the better.

This change in my thinking resulted from my work as an executive coach. I talk very candidly to leaders all the time and I can't help but notice that they have a wide variety of ideas about how they view their job: "My job is to deliver financial results," or "I'm here to tell people what to do and how to do it,'' or "I'm here to serve my constituents." The list goes on.

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Recently, though, I had an astonishing conversation along these lines with a refreshingly self-aware CEO of a large manufacturing holding company.

Much to my annoyance, and then wonder, our talk challenged my own notions about a leader's role not only in his or her organization, but also in relation to the world.

This CEO asks the people who work for him at all levels to consider the question: Why are you here on this earth?

He didn't wait for me to ask the question of him. He said he and his companies are here to make the world a better place and to touch people's lives in a positive way every day. Sounds like fluffy corporate PR boilerplate, right? Well, from my conversation with him, I can tell you: He means it.

Wow.

Does his answer sound trite or facile to you? Fair enough. But let me tell you how this CEO's profound question has led to positive bottom-line results in a real-world situation in his company.

The plant manager was complaining to the finance department that the rising cost of workers' compensation insurance would break the bank. The resulting meeting could've easily been a "blamestorming" session. But when the two sides met, the CEO's question came to mind, and they reframed the discussion to be about making the world a better place.

Applied to their organization, that meant an enhanced commitment to safety, and people going home healthy and happy every night. In short order, the factories became safer and better places to work, and people went home happier and more satisfied. Then, as merely a byproduct, insurance rates went down, thus solving the original problem of out-of-control costs – a goal almost forgotten in the exuberance to do good things in the world.

Now apply this lesson to the larger world. Think about healthcare, the economy, international relations, dialogue among religions, or even your own workplace: What would be different if many or most leaders had soul-searched enough to figure out their sense of purpose, and operated from the core notion that they are here, at least in part, to make the world a better place and to touch people's lives in a positive way every day?

I'm thinking life would be a lot better. This notion is a big winner – and it ought to be a more explicit responsibility of leadership. A world more oriented this way is one I want to help build and live in.

Until this conversation, I've always asked my executive clients at some point: How do you see your role as a leader? What are you here to do? Yet, I'm sorry to say I had never challenged them along these more profound, purpose-driven lines. When I did, one of my clients said, "Now that you mention it, I'd like to do my job so that my people are glad to come to work every day." I'm glad I asked!

Whether you are a leader of others, or a leader in your own life, I challenge you to apply this notion – take it for a test drive. For example, as you think about casting your vote for president, ask yourself, your friends, and your family: Which candidate is most likely to make the world a better place and touch people's lives in a positive way every day?

While living with a clear purpose and some personal responsibility for greater good isn't news, it's sorely lacking among leaders, achievers, and busy people. Try asking yourself why you are on this planet and how you can make the world a better place today, and you are likely to do a world of good.

David Peck is a president of Leadership Unleashed, an executive coaching firm in Palm Springs, Calif., and author of the just-released book "Beyond Effective: Practices in Self-aware Leadership."

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