Leadership, Work, and the Priority of Purpose

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose matters. As evidenced by the popularity of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life—a book that has sold over 30 million copies—people have an innate desire to know that their lives matter and that their lives are shaped by a sense of purpose. One CEO, Dave Dillon, expressed it this way: “All human beings want to find meaning in their lives.”

Purpose and Leaders

While purpose is a priority for all human beings engaged in all types of work, purpose holds unique importance for leaders. Why is this? Leaders have an important role to play in shaping the culture and direction of the organizations they lead. Will this culture and direction be shaped by an anemic vision of life and organizational purpose, or will it be shaped by a vital sense of purpose and mission that connects to something larger than themselves and contributes to the flourishing others?

Engaging the importance of purpose for leadership, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, asks the following questions: “What is your True North? Do you know what your life and leadership are all about, and when you are being true to yourself?

Personal and Organizational Purpose

Although this begins with a personal sense of purpose for leaders, this “True North” purpose is vital at both the personal and organizational levels. Does the leader personally have a sense of purpose guiding their life? Does the leader also see a greater sense of purpose in the work organizationally? Understanding purpose at both the personal and organizational levels is vital for leaders and followers alike.

Theologically-Based Purpose

Amy Sherman provides thoughtful reflection on purpose and vocation in her book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good. In discussing the core of Christianity Sherman writes: “The gospel of the kingdom tells us not only what we’re saved from, but also what we’re saved for. We have purpose, we have a sacred calling, we have a God-giving vocation….”

In other words, God has made, shaped, and redeemed our lives for a purpose. The Bible reminds us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Because of the gospel, our lives are not only moving away from something but our lives are to be oriented toward and for something as well.

Practically-Effective Purpose

Not only is purpose in work and leadership a theologically grounded idea, it is also practically effective and backed by a growing research base. In another post I highlighted the work I’ve been doing with the Purpose in Leadership Inventory (PLI). Along with additional leadership variables such as goal-orientation and follower-focus, the variable of purpose in leadership is showing strong statistical relationships with other important variables. Purpose in leadership—a leader’s sense of personal and organizational purpose—is significantly related to leadership effectiveness, follower job satisfaction, follower organizational commitment, and follower sense of person-organization fit.

Identifying Your Purpose

Amy Sherman argues that our vocational sweet spot is found at the center of three domains: (1) God’s priorities, (2) personal passions and gifts, and (3) the world’s needs. Understanding this vocational sweet spot goes a long way in understanding one’s purpose. Bill George makes a similar affirmation arguing that “following your passions will enable you to discover the purpose of your leadership.”

Understanding your purpose as a leader is not simply about personal fulfillment. Understanding your purpose and how this relates to the organization you serve shapes the lives of others. Leader purpose helps followers to be more satisfied in their work, have a better sense of their fit in the organization, and have increased commitment to their work and to their organization.

Taking the Next Step with Purpose

So what is your purpose? What is the “True North” that guides you in your life, work, and leadership? Whether taking to time to read a book such as Bill George’s True North, or engaging with a peer or coach who may help you better clarify your vocational sweet spot and sense of purpose, purpose needs to be a priority. Take time to prioritize reflection on purpose in your life, leadership, and work in the coming days.

Oikonomia — Work as Stewardship

Work [Explored], by Riccardo Cuppini, Flickr

Work [Explored], by Riccardo Cuppini, Flickr

In January I attended a conference put on by the Oikonomia Network. Oikonomia is a Greek term used in the New Testament to describe the concept of stewardship and the appropriate management or administration of the resources of a household. Oikonomia is also a root word behind the English word economy, and points us to the connection between healthy economy and healthy stewardship of work in relationship with others.

The Intrinsic Value of Work

This conference for professors and theological educators is a place for those teaching or administrating in seminaries to come together and engage the priority of affirming the significance and goodness of work within our world and within our economies. Rather than work only having utilitarian benefits (i.e., just a way to bring home a pay check), there are significant theological reasons to affirm the intrinsic value of work in addition to the utilitarian value of work.

Most individuals engaged in everyday work feel the toil and struggle involved with work. Among the consequences of sin in our world is the reality of pain and toil in labor and work. But from a biblical perspective, it is important to remember that work was a part of the fabric of our world before the fall of humanity into sin.

God as Worker

In Genesis, the first description we read of God is his role as Worker and Creator:

  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and
  • on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2).

God not only worked in the beginning, he also continues to work:

  • all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17), and
  • he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Workers in God’s Image

While God is described in the Bible as one who worked and continues to work, the Bible also describes humans as made in his image. Part of this image of God is our identity as those who work. A core dimension of being human is that we also create and work. And, it is important to remember that this core was a reality for humanity before the image of God in us was ever distorted by sin. Note the description of Adam’s work in the garden before the fall into sin was a reality: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

Working with Excellence

Though work was a part of the human story before humanity’s fall into sin, sin’s presence now affects our work. What once was joyful stewardship of God’s creation now is accompanied by toil and pain. But God is in the business of redeeming what is broken. This includes the process of redeeming work.

In light of such gospel transformation, God’s people are part of the redemptive story in the area of their work as well. Through our work, we serve others within God’s household—the broader context of the world in which we live. Through our work, we both serve others and honor God. Note the New Testament call to work with excellence, as one serving the Lord directly: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24).

Stewarding Our Work Well

Stewardship—oikonomia—is a helpful frame through which to consider the broader meaning of our everyday work. Certainly leadership is one context for stewardship. Leaders serving with a stewardship mindset recognize that their role is not simply about making decisions regarding their own resources, but rather making decisions that consider the needs of others and effectively stewarding the resources of the organization in a manner that considers the interests in which others are vested.

But in addition to leaders leaders, viewing our work under the leadership of God means that all workers have a stewardship responsibility. If we believe what the Bible says about God—“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1)—then all workers have a stewardship responsibility in their work to faithful care for and steward the resources of God’s household well.

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What are the resources that have been entrusted to you? What are the skills, talents, and abilities you’ve been given? How are you using your work as a pathway for stewarding both who you are and what you have in service of others and contributing within the wider economy within which you live and work? Work is a primary context for living as stewards. May this vision of oikonomia give you renewed energy to lead, serve, and work as stewards in God’s household—the world within which we live.