Purpose: The Power of Our Inner Compass

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman examines how purpose has entered the business world and its ties to emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

What inner compass do we live by? What gives meaning to our work? Why do we take on any challenge at all?

One answer is “purpose,” where our values, our sense of meaning, and our moral compass align.

“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how,'” as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. Purpose is where we get the fuel to keep going, no matter the challenge or the pursuit.

I’ve become fascinated by purpose, the deeper dimension of what moves us to act.  Purpose has always been implicit in my thinking about emotional intelligence (EI) as a fruit of our self-awareness, the foundational competence for EI. In the EI competencies, purpose also surfaces in influencing others and in inspiring leadership. Purpose sums up the “why” that unites entire organizations around a mission, the force that gets people to support leaders and their strategies -- and people out of bed.

In the coming weeks I want to explore purpose more deeply. 

Purpose has entered the business conversation for several compelling reasons. For one, a Korn Ferry study of purpose-driven retailers found that beyond being celebrated for their marketing, customer engagement, and positive impact in the world, the success of these companies was fueled by a commitment to people and purpose inside of the company.

From 2011 to 2015 purpose-driven companies in the consumer sector achieved a compound annual growth rate of 9.85% compared to their peers’ rate of 2.4% in the S&P 500, according to the Korn Ferry study. And researchers at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, concluded a “strong, well-communicated purpose” can contribute up to a 17% improvement in financial performance.

When embedded into the culture of an organization, purpose becomes a deep and enduring form of motivation. And because it drives wellbeing and engagement, it impacts profits. In a Korn Ferry survey 90% of executives said a commitment to purpose-driven leadership produces long-term financial benefits.

While purpose is often conflated with “socially conscious” or “socially responsible,” it doesn’t always look like Corporate Social Responsibility, a corporate gesture that can be sincere, but which sometimes has been seen as whitewash.

Leaders and companies can no longer afford to ignore purpose. As purpose continues to come into its own, I will be exploring the ways it is defined and lived by leaders, organizations and in our own lives. The business case is clear: purpose drives profit. But it only does so, because it drives so much more.

Far-sighted companies will position themselves ahead of this wave, getting more in touch with their organizational purpose and sense of mission, and make it more prominent in their communications.

My hunch is that over the next five years, purpose will be the conversation we will be having in every organization, development plan, and around the dinner table.