Nelson Mandela and the Power of Purpose

July 18 was International Nelson Mandela Day: What any leader can learn from his legacy.

Today’s leaders certainly face tough challenges, but few can argue that they pale in comparison to what Nelson Mandela had to overcome: poverty, institutionalized racism and prison, to name just a few. Yet Mandela was able to accomplish something remarkable in a way that experts say leaders in government and the private sector can learn from.

Mandela’s legacy was honored July 18, on what would have been his 99th birthday. He infused a clear sense of purpose—to create a free society—in both his words and deeds; and it’s that unwavering sense of purpose, experts say, that CEOs should take to heart. Leaders who can inspire groups to “serve something larger than ourselves,” can create organizations that are more productive, profitable and beneficial to society, says Elaine Dinos, a principal in Korn Ferry's Global Consumer Market practice.   

To be a purpose-driven leader or run a purpose-driven company may sound like corporate jargon, but research shows the concept can have considerable power. In a recent Korn Ferry survey of more than 1,000 global executives, every respondent said they saw at least some level of increased productivity when employees understood and embraced the company’s mission and purpose. In a sign perhaps of how much room there is for improvement, only half agreed that their organizations currently engage their employees with purpose.

Leading with purpose is a powerful way to galvanize employees -- far more powerful than making it all about the company’s financial metrics, says Janet Feldman, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice. “Leading by the numbers really only inspires the top leadership; it doesn’t inspire the masses to go the extra mile and care about the work they do.” Indeed, experts say that purpose drives performance -- not the other way around. One study found that purpose-driven consumer goods companies saw more than quadruple the growth of their peers in over a four-year period.

Purpose involves more than just hanging a mission statement on a wall. It needs to be reflected in everything the company does, says Kevin Cashman, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO and executive development group. When communicated effectively and authentically, purpose motivates people to fuel the organization and take it to new heights. As Cashman asks clients: “What’s more powerful -- your energy, or the collective energy of thousands?”