Practical Leadership

The Power of Shared Purpose

20150902_175720As a military officer, I’ve served with some of the finest people I’ll ever know. Few of them were exactly like me, but all of us shared a common purpose to serve our country. It’s that shared purpose that unified a diverse group of people around a singular mission to fight for our country, our values, and each other. When leaders help those around them understand and work toward shared purpose, its a powerful “energizer” for the team.

As we move constantly, you’d be forgiven in thinking military people say goodbye easily–we don’t. Because of the bond of our service, saying goodbye is usually accompanied with tears and sadness. Even when we’re excited to move on to another assignment or get a promotion, leaving our comrades behind and making new friends is hard. Retirements are even more difficult because we’re leaving the “brotherhood” for good and leaving behind the symbols of our connection: our uniforms and our duties. Amazingly, even when soldiers are wounded in battle their first questions are usually about their battle buddies and when they can return to take their place in the line. Such is the power of shared purpose.

The military may be expert at helping recruits internalize the military values and mission, but that same sense of mission works in the private sector as well. I’ve written many times about the value of giving people a purpose, not just a paycheck. It’s been my experience that most people want to contribute, not just clock in and out. In fact, the most successful companies in the business today are successfull for precisely that reason. Take a look at these well-know companies and their missions:

  • Google (“…to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”)
  • REI (“…inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship”)
  • SpaceX (“..revolutionize space technology…to enable people to live on other planets”)
  • USAA (“Facilitate the financial security of [the] members”)

See? Each of those examples–and there are hundreds like them–provide their employees with a sense of shared purpose, a reason to come to work each day and contribute. Their mission statements give their employees something larger than themselves to aspire to be. However, mission statements are nothing but a pretty wall-hanging in the executive conference room if the leadership doesn’t help new people internalize the team’s values, and that process begins during onboarding and continues as long as we’re with the company.

There are two key ideas to creating shared purpose within your company:

1. The mission has to be about more than dollars and cents. Profit motive and success are important, that’s the grease for getting the mission done, but they can’t be the only thing the company cares about. In the examples above, each of those companies is worth billions–and each has a mission to accomplish that is higher than merely making money. For entrepreneurs and corporations alike: think about the reason you got into your line of work to begin with: that’s your mission!

2. Leaders from the C-suite to the front line have to “walk the talk.” No matter what your company does, leaders have to be about the mission first. Everyone want’s to be successful financially, but trust me, if you don’t get the mission done no one will care what the bottom line looks like. Business in the ’80’s might have been all about conspicuous consumption and “greed”–but that’s not the Twenty-First Century way. We care about the financials, but we care just as much about corporate citizenship. Leaders have to set the example!

Give your team a shared purpose, not just a paycheck, and you’ll see how both the bottom line and the sense of community within grow. A team unified around a shared purpose is a powerful team indeed!


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.

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