Leadership and Purpose – Purpose beyond Profit

Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, articulated a new strategy for his organisation: “Unilever would double the size of its business”, he said, by channelling its efforts toward achieving eight ambitious goals by 2020:

  • helping more than a billion people improve their hygiene habits
  • bringing safe drinking water to 500 million people
  • doubling the proportion of Unilever’s portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards
  • halving the greenhouse gas impact of its products across the lifecycle
  • halving the water associated with the consumer use of its products
  • halving the waste associated with the disposal of its products
  • sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably
  • linking 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into its supply chain.

This may not sound like a typical corporate strategy, but Polman’s reframing of what it means to succeed as a business leader is an example of a new generation of leaders emerging across a number of the world’s largest businesses.

They don’t have an excessive focus on short-term return-on-equity. Their focus goes beyond profit, they focus on the long term, the context in which their organisations find themselves, they are concerned about society and about creating a sustainable world for future generations.

Having had countless conversations with scores of people over time I have discovered that, for many employees, corporate life adds up to a kind of purposeless existence. An existence where people don’t matter and where profit (at any cost) is the only objective. I would hate for my children to have to live and work in such a world.

I believe that we all search for meaningful purpose in our lives and our working lives are no different. Purpose activates us, it motivates us, and it invigorates us. Purpose helps us through the hard times, it gives us something to strive towards and it moves us to get up in the morning. Without a sense of meaning and purpose we find ourselves adrift and nothing seems to matter.

Humans are at their very best when they find their purpose, and when humans are at their best, they tend to run or work in extraordinarily successful businesses.

The new generation of leaders referred to in the introduction know that they need to generate a strong sense of shared purpose for their people and their organisations. A purpose that goes beyond making money for its shareholders. They need to create organisations that focus on deeper purpose, organisations that inspire, engage and energise their stakeholders. Employees, customers and other stakeholders learn to trust and perhaps even love those brands and companies that have an inspiring purpose. These organisations find that profit will follow from this shared purpose – it does not lead it.

Wise leaders spend time helping people find a clear sense of purpose in the work that they do. They find meaning where none is apparent. Because these leaders are inspired, they inspire others.

In these turbulent times we live in, we have to re-evaluate or reframe the role of business in our society. Organisations can no longer just focus on making money; they have vast responsibilities to their employees, customers, the environment, and society at large. The fate of humanity can no longer be left in the hands of politicians. Our destiny will depend on the collective and collaborative efforts of business, government, society and other stakeholders.

Wise leaders now understand that humans need purpose beyond profit to feel engaged and motivated. When they feel engaged and motivated, they tend to give their highest talents to others. They also know that they need to re-think and re-define how they create long term value. They need to adopt measures of success that go beyond short-term shareholder value and they need to embrace a far broader range of indicators of ‘stakeholder value’.

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life. Albert Einstein