Is Purpose Running Us into the Ground?

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains how leaders can balance their commitment to purpose with their own well-being. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Picture an executive fueled by the corporate mission but lacking in friendships, community, and a sense of connection with others. Or a leader motivated to mitigate climate change, but overcome by feelings of resentment and despair about how much they have to do, or whether or not a better future is even viable.

Many are familiar with the image of the passionate and overworked executive—the leader who puts in eighty hours a week, sacrificing meals, sleep, and family time in order to double down on their career. For some leaders, this giving of discretionary effort symbolizes engagement: their commitment to a corporate vision, evidenced by a willingness to make sacrifices in their personal lives. Seen this way, overwork is spun as the ultimate expression of purpose, as a way of transcending one’s own needs in the service of something “greater” for the organization and those it serves.

But is this a sustainable example of purpose-driven leadership? Or is it something else entirely?

According to one survey, 74% of executives aren’t able to achieve their well-being goals, mostly due to a heavy workload and long hours. While purpose is a motivator, how a leader approaches it matters greatly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nonprofit sector—a place where passion and purpose have contributed to historically high rates of burnout and turnover. The fact that purpose has been shown to curb burnout doesn’t mean purpose-driven leaders are immune to suffering.

So how can leaders cultivate a sense of purpose that fuels not just their commitment, but also their physical and emotional well-being?

Part of the answer lies in positive psychology, a discipline that focuses on what causes human beings to flourish. Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, cites five elements to human thriving: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Called the PERMA theory of well-being, the elements are defined accordingly:

  • Positive Emotion: Leveraging things like gratitude, mindfulness, forgiveness, hope, and optimism to increase positive emotion about the past, present, and future.
  • Engagement: Fully activating skills and strengths to bring unwavering attention to a challenging task.
  • Relationships: Building connection and sense of belonging by widening the capacity for love, joy, laughter, compassion, kindness, empathy, and cooperation.
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than ourselves.
  • Accomplishment: Pursuing achievement, competence, success, and mastery even when it doesn't immediately lead to improvements in our emotional state.

While accomplishment and engagement are familiar terms in most workplaces—in part because they have long been connected to productivity and the bottom line—meaning, relationships, and positive emotions have been slower to take root.

In the PERMA model, each of these things is pursued for its own sake, not as a means to an end, and is independently defined and measured. Even though each element will vary in degree from person to person, thriving requires the presence of all five.

In the C-suite, only two-thirds use all of their vacation time, take microbreaks during the day, get enough sleep, and have enough time for friends and family. A well-rounded approach to purpose requires not just a commitment to something bigger than oneself, but also a simultaneous commitment to the many things that help us be full, whole human beings.

If purpose-driven leaders are going to make it over the long haul, they will need to walk the line between commitment to their work and commitment to their own health and happiness. Being purpose driven can’t just be about motivating accomplishments and strengthening the bottom line (even though we know it helps with those things)—it must also be about hope, forgiveness, connection, and experiencing meaning not just at work, but outside of it, too. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.