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When it comes to purpose in business and leadership, do you find yourself talking the talk yet wondering whether you’re walking the walk? Do you worry you’re not really living your express purpose?

There are all sorts of mixed messages out there about what, exactly, purpose is. To some, purpose means contributing to and serving a cause greater than oneself, like saving the planet. To others, it might mean having an inspirational tagline to help rally teams and boost engagement and the bottom line.

If you believe purpose is about having a cause to fight for, you may feel frustrated because your job and much of your life have little if anything to do with your cause. We all spend a good deal of our time doing things that aren’t directly related to solving the world’s most challenging problems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our work is less purposeful. Similarly, a tagline may not be what you need to experience purpose. In both cases, something isn’t working.

There’s a far more effective way to look at purpose that removes the confusion. As I explain in my new book, Leading From Purpose: Clarity and the Confidence to Act When It Matters Most, purpose is the essence of who we are as individuals and what we bring to a situation that nobody else can. It is present in every instant of our lives and evident in how we interact with the challenges of the moment. We see the echo of our purpose in every action we take.

In leadership, purpose is what we uniquely bring to a meeting or discussion that wouldn’t be present if we didn’t show up. Purpose is not the cause we care about, which organization we work for, the solutions that organization offers, or the brands it creates. In the absence of all of those things, our purpose holds steady. It turns out to be the only thing that doesn’t change, even if your world is spinning out of control.

Maybe you are a lot closer to living your purpose than you think. Or perhaps you already are living your purpose. How can you know? Ask yourself these four questions:

1. Do You Feel Regularly Energized?

Purpose is at the root of what energizes us. It is where all our aliveness, curiosity, insight, and full engagement are generated. If you regularly feel filled with energy and drive — not drained or lethargic — you are in the room of purpose.

Nic, who had spent his early career teaching disenfranchised South Africans to read, was more recently brought in to close a factory of 300 employees in Atlanta. He was faced with two options: close the factory quickly, leaving the employees stranded and without support, which would be easiest for him, or keep the factory open much longer and deal with the morale issues and address the choices people faced after they lost their jobs.

Energy was key for Nic: There was no energy in just closing the plant. What energized Nic was how proud the people were of their work, and he wanted them to leave that way. In the end, Nic’s team had the pride of closing the place right. Instead of being an energy drain, the small things he did to help every person gave him energy and positive memories.

2. Does Stress Drive You to Act Decisively and Courageously?

Think of an athlete excelling in the final two minutes of a big event. If you feel this way when the pressure is on, you’re experiencing a healthy “challenge response” to stress — a response that is deeply connected to your sense of purpose.

Mac was recently part of his foundation’s response to the Ebola outbreak. For months, he worked 12-14 hours a day, totally energized, motivated, and at his best, serving as the interface between senior leadership and the troops directing activities on the ground in Africa. The statement Mac uses to describe his purpose is: “To continue the quest to slay giants and change the world.” Only purpose can turn such a metaphor into a super-charged challenge response.

3. Do You See Adversity as an Opportunity to Grow — Even If It Means Taking Risks?

If so, you have what Carol Dweck of Stanford calls the “growth mindset.” There is no more powerful and effective means to turn on the growth mindset than discovering your purpose and living it.

Philippe’s first job was with IBM. He was hired into marketing but wanted to be in sales. Though his boss was resistant, Philippe persisted and was finally given six mothballed accounts others had failed to revive. As he looked at the accounts, he realized that nobody had ever studied the bigger picture. He asked the clients questions and discussed strategic issues that no IBM salesperson had raised before. Over time Philippe re-signed all six accounts, created $14 million in new sales, and reopened a distribution network of about 500 new outlets selling IBM consumer products again. Like many others who are leading from purpose, Philippe goes looking for the challenges that others run away from, and he turns them into chances to evolve and grow.

4. Will Your Purpose Disappear If You Lose Your Title, Your Role, or Your Cause?

If so, it’s not your purpose. You should be able to apply the same purpose to all areas of your life — work, family, hobbies, and passions alike. If you lose a job or title, your purpose remains intact.

When looking ahead to the future, many executives I work with think that in five years the fullest expression of their purpose will be to be CEO, chairman of a company, head of HR or legal, or whatever the top of their current pyramid looks like. But even if they reach those lofty places, they can’t stay in them forever. Who will they be once they leave the position or retire?

Purpose is the one identity that will always be there as all others defined by the world are swept away.

Nick Craig is the president of the Core Leadership Institute.



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