(Editor’s note: This is the last of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? P=PURPOSE. A final article will summarize the Cornerstones of Effective Leadership.)

‘"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." ---William Shakespeare

"What are you doing that for?" "Why are we doing things this way?" "Should we add more products or specialize in deeper categories?" "Why do we continue to invest in unprofitable customers?" "Why are we thinking about building a new plant in this dragging economy?"

These are just a few of questions that arise in the course of figuring out what business you’re in. It’s also an appropriate note on which to finish our L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. series with P = PURPOSE, which relates to not only your organization’s direction, but to your own individual purpose as a Servant-Leader.

Among many consultants, the word “Purpose” is routinely exchanged with buzzwords like "Mission," “Vision,” etc., and its power is often subjugated to those terms. In an earlier article, "Spit-shine your mission so it's crystal clear," I discussed the difference between Vision and Mission statements, and wrote that a "Vision Statement seeks to 'communicate' the core values and purpose of an organization, and looks to the future, to 'what is possible' rather than 'what is.' It’s more about inspiration than perspiration."

In a vision statement, Purpose is often subsumed by a celebration of values. Values are critical to "how" you'll go about realizing your Purpose ... but Purpose describes "why" you're in business. Then, let your Mission Statement fulfill that Purpose. As I also wrote in the earlier article ... let your "Mission Statement [say] exactly what you do -- now -- and like a good 'elevator speech,' it should be recited in the time it takes you to get from the first to the 10th floor. It should use clear, muscular language to tell people succinctly 'who you are' and 'what you do'. It’s what the perspiration is all about."

In a recent interview for Chief Executive magazine, Allan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company, described the three most important traits of leadership, the first of which was to define the Purpose of the organization. “What business are we in?” ... and more importantly ... "What business aren’t we in?"

What are we trying to accomplish, what values do we support and how does that form the foundation for the strategy that will get us there? Steve Jobs’ mantra of "Get rid of the crappy stuff" reminds us to sharply focus on the distractions that dilute those endeavors that truly serve your organization's Purpose.

Purpose also requires clarity, and for me, clarity requires simplicity. Pompous-sounding vision statements obfuscate rather than enlighten the Purpose of a company and its true direction. Your Purpose must be both clear and simple so your community can easily understand it. Only then can it be transformed into a strategy that people can execute. Think about Purpose as a very concrete and specific description of your company's direction, articulated in clear and concise language that is highly relevant to your specific business, and not a set of lofty platitudes that have universal applicability.

While some people would argue that your Purpose is to create a sustainable competitive advantage, it isn't the same thing. Purpose is of a higher order, from which the strategy flows. Think of your strategy as "what" you will pursue to create that sustainable competitive advantage ... informed by the values that establish "how" you will go about achieving the "why" that your Purpose directs. Go back to my earlier article, Why are you in business, to remind yourself of how important the “Why” is to your goals and objectives.

Try starting a meeting with your leadership team with this simple question: “Why are we here?” I suspect it will trigger a wide range of responses ... and will likely reveal that your strategy is more of a vague mosaic than a tightly-woven tapestry that everyone clearly understands. Follow that by asking “Who am I serving?” ... followed by “How can that help me create the highest and greatest value for the fulfillment of the company’s mission?" These simple questions will inevitably stimulate fresh thinking and a renewal of the various ways in which you can modify and update your Purpose to meet the current demands of a challenging economy.

Next week, we’ll wrap up our L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. Series by summarizing the Cornerstones of Effective Leadership and see how these building blocks can be used to renew our commitment to successfully lead our companies.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the President of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy, and recently hosted a Cash Flow Workshop, “It’s Midnight. Do you Know Where Your Cash Is?” You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.