Purpose: Now More Than Ever

These days, company leaders who don’t show a commitment to improving the broader world could be taking a huge risk, says best-selling author Dan Goleman.

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

These days, the term VUCA—an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—is used pretty often. For leaders, it’s the context in which they are making decisions—a world in which war, violence, climate change, political division, and global pandemics are the norm.

According to John Ashburn, senior manager for assessment services at Korn Ferry, in the context of ongoing tragedies, “employees aren’t sure leadership cares about them.” As businesses hustle to stay afloat, many people are left feeling alone and overwhelmed by their own experience.

Is my company empathetic enough to the state of the world?

And does leadership feel compelled to respond to hardship?

While leading in a VUCA world requires many skills—adaptability, emotional self-management and empathy, to name a few—a visible commitment to purpose is a critical success factor for many of today’s leaders. According to new research from Korn Ferry, 74% of CEOs in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa said a genuine sense of mission and purpose was a vital trait for the CEO of 2025. Indeed, that purpose is among the top things defining the leader of the future.

While missions and purposes vary, one thing they often have in common is an attention to suffering. Retailer Patagonia’s core purpose is “​​we're in business to save our home planet.” The insurance firm Allstate's goal is to “help customers realize their hopes and dreams by providing the best products and services to protect them from life’s uncertainties and prepare them for the future.” And asset manager’s BlackRock’s is “to help more and more people experience financial well-being.”

In psychology, suffering is broken down into various types or sources. One is physical, instances of disease or bodily discomfort that cause pain. A second type is psychic, hardships or mental illnesses that limit a capacity for ease and happiness. A third is spiritual, the moral dilemmas or lack of a meaningful life that prohibit a sense of fulfillment and connection.

These types of suffering are overlapping, existing in a web of cause and effect, so many great purpose statements seek to address one or more types at a time. For the leader, a journey towards purpose—no matter how positively oriented—may start with a willingness to acknowledge suffering in all of its various manifestations, even and especially when it’s not happening in their own lives.

Earlier this month, Chuck Feeney, the man behind the retail giant Duty Free Shoppers, died at the age of 92. Upon his passing, people were surprised to learn he was only worth $2 million, a fraction of the billions he had acquired over his lifetime.  Called the “James Bond of Philanthropy,” Feeney had been giving away his fortune all throughout his life. Through his empire, he made and donated more than $8 billion to educational, health, science and social causes.

 “If you give while living, the money goes to work quickly. Everyone gets to see the action and the results,” said Feeney.

While philanthropy isn’t the only way to lead with purpose, there is something to be said for Feeney’s focus on doing something that generates results right now. His willingness to connect to suffering and feel a sense of urgency is a hallmark of his leadership. For some leaders, connecting to suffering may start with connecting to their own teams–acknowledging recent trends such as “Quiet Quitting” and “Lazy Girl Jobs” as a response to the rising levels of burnout spurred by living and working in a VUCA world.

Recognizing the stress and distraction employees feel is critical. “If leaders don’t address this they risk employee disengagement,” says Ashburn. Disengagement is the one thing every organization tries desperately to avoid. Seeing suffering and connecting to a sense of purpose isn’t optional anymore. It’s critical to the long-term survival of teams, workplaces, and organizations. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


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