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Leading with Purpose: Insights for the New Leader

By Jon Pratlett | 27 June 2016


Leadership and culture are key foundations to support the increased productivity and performance demanded of organisations and individuals in our fast-changing workplaces.

Insights from neuroscience and the latest research will help you develop a progressive leadership style and culture that will enable your organisation to achieve its stated outputs while at the same time building the capabilities to succeed in future decades. Many of the competencies that underpin these insights are becoming imperative now, given what is happening around the world. Even if your organisation is not leading the charge, you can’t afford to wait. There are many practical ways you can apply brain-friendly leadership strategies and start building a culture that will position you and your team to achieve sustained performance.

What will the leader of the next decade look like? What competencies will characterise him or her? What areas can she or he focus on to maximise success and get the most from people?


Look to the big picture

Survey after survey, year in year out, show a high percentage of staff report not being engaged, or even feeling actively disengaged (Gallup Consulting, 2011). They don’t feel or act like they want to be at work, and their performance suffers.

You may have heard the story of the stone-cutter.

A young man was walking down a road when he came upon a labourer fiercely pounding away at a stone with hammer and chisel. The lad asked the worker, who looked frustrated and angry, “What are you doing?” The labourer said in a pained voice: “I’m trying to shape this stone and it is back-breaking work.”

The youth continued his journey and soon came upon another man chipping away at a similar stone; he looked neither angry nor happy. “What are you doing?” the young man asked. “I’m shaping a stone for a building.”

The young man went on and before long came upon a third worker who was singing happily. “What are you doing?” the young man asked. The worker smiled and replied, “I’m building a cathedral."

These three men had three different attitudes, yet were doing the same job. It was a sense of purpose that made the difference.

If you want your people to go the extra mile, be highly engaged, contribute their discretionary effort and take pride in their work, then having a meaningful bigger picture, or vision, that is positive, compelling and relevant is crucial.


Mission of the new leader

Research highlighted by Kim Cameron shows that a strong sense of meaning at work is associated with high levels of individual and organisational performance as well as greater job satisfaction. People feel more motivated to give their best when their job and their role is clear, meaningful, impactful, and fits into a larger strategic vision.

The job of the new leader is to draw a line of sight between what people do and how they contribute to the organisation’s higher purpose; its vision, its mission, and its values. By connecting people to an authentic purpose they have something to reach for. What’s more, they will follow the new leader, because they know you mean it. They know you’re the real deal.

However, having a clear vision isn’t enough. It needs to be communicated in a way that challenges people without over-challenging them. If you are not engaging your people, then either the vision is off, not relevant or poorly thought through, or it isn’t being communicated effectively. Neuroscience confirms that our brains vary from person to person, and our attempts to influence, inspire and engage may work for one and yet fail with someone else.

Almost all of the leaders I have worked with find the following statement sobering and a call to action: The meaning of my communication is the response I get!


Our meaning-making brains

When an engaged team member is asked “What motivates you to work so hard?” typical responses include “I love my work”; “Few things are more interesting to me than piecing this huge puzzle together”; “I have a lot of freedom to decide how I do it and I love the autonomy”; “ I work with great people, even when it’s crazy, it’s still fun!”

These positive associations between our job, and being challenged, feeling capable, having autonomy (within limits), and good relationships with others, demonstrate that we are engaged. When our basic psychological needs are being met we feel rewarded and willing to go the extra mile on a consistent basis. When negative associations are made such as “ The work is boring”; “My leader couldn’t give a damn about us”; “I’m only here for the money”, it is not hard to predict the level of commitment and outcome.

The brain is a meaning-maker. It works by association. What does that mean? Well, it has now been well established that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” known as Hebb’s Law, and it means that during the learning process, repeated and persistent messages create lasting changes that add to associate stability.

So when you, as a leader, can consistently explain how the actions of an individual or the team contribute toward the vision, or your meaningful version of it, your team’s brains are then able to associate the two and, with repetition, the same neurons keep firing together and form neural maps. People are able to associate their work with the vision, and thus make meaning, hopefully positive meaning, from this.


Creating positive associations

Finding an authentic way to help each individual make an appropriate association is part of a leader’s role. An association of “increasing shareholder value” is unlikely to truly engage someone. You, as their leader, need to provide the context, the reason, behind what is to be done. What is the purpose above and beyond increasing shareholder value? This gives people a bigger picture in regard to each piece of work they are given, and therefore it is critical that leaders, in assigning tasks, ensure that giving meaningful rationale and putting a task in context is a key element.

In over two decades of being involved in developing leaders, I have found that context, including level of priority, is often missing, or is thin at best, in many task assignments. Without providing the framework, you may unwittingly encourage your team members to become dependent on you because you are withholding vital information. You will likely contribute to their stress levels unnecessarily, impairing their judgement in the process.

Without context, you might be reducing their autonomy and motivating them not to think for themselves. You may be encouraging them to either “plow on” and do the best they can. Yet if they plow on without context, they will probably not provide the outcome you were looking for. This could result in poor work quality, rework, extra cost or having to manage poor performance. Ultimately this is likely to undermine trust, encourage disengagement, and increase the amounts of stress you are both experiencing.

On the other hand, if you infuse purpose and meaning into the every day life of your organisation and team, you will ensure your work and theirs has lasting impact. Instead of merely focusing on the bottom line, give people something to aspire to.


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About the Author: Jon Pratlett

Jon Pratlett

Jon Pratlett has decades of experience, coupled with extensive study and on the ground action, developing brain-friendly leadership practices and instilling the mindset, skills and resilience to lead in the 21st Century. As a two-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon finisher and five-time Australian Ironman finisher, Jon knows what it takes to succeed at elite levels, while postgraduate qualifications in the Neuroscience of Leadership enables him to bring the latest research on high performance to his clients.

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