with Edward L. Rowland

“Purpose needs leadership….Mission statements are helpful – but purpose goes much further and is rooted in commitments to others, including individuals, communities and the world at large.” 

Purpose in Practice: Clarity, Authenticity & the Spectre of Purpose Wash (2015) Claremont Communications

During these times of disruptive change, many voices are calling for a new approach to leadership. Most of us want to find our true work and right ‘place’, so that our leadership brings out the best in ourselves, others, and our workplaces and communities as a whole.

Alongside this search for personal meaning and purpose, a growing business case for purpose – researched by EY, Deloitte, Harvard and Saïd Oxford Business Schools – shows that purpose-led organisations have greater competitive advantage, customer loyalty, employee engagement and agility to innovate than those that seek profitability alone.1

This blog article explores the phenomenon of purpose, as revealed through the particular lens of systemic coaching and constellations work. It shows how this method – together with robust dialogue – can create a powerful leadership practice for the attunement to, and discovery of potent purpose. And we offer an original tool, the Purpose Diamond, that can be used as part of this process. We also suggest – using a client story as an example – that to bring purpose to life in organisations, it is essential to ‘see the whole’ and navigate the wider systemic context as part of the discovery process.

Mapping the Invisible: the Method as X-Ray

By creating maps of the whole system – including ‘intangibles’ such as purpose, brand and the best emergent future – the awareness-based constellations method enables the invisible dynamics and deeper potential of leadership and business situations to be explored, and illuminated.

In less than an hour, for instance, we can “x-ray” the current reality and true health of our organisations by setting up a simulation containing its key intangibles together with more concrete, tangible parts of the system. We can do this alongside – or even without – time-consuming and potentially expensive data collection of people’s perceptions through, for example, surveys and focus groups.

This mapping work graphically reveals some interesting things! At its best, we often see that when a system connects to its true purpose, this serves as a powerful energetic wellspring for its people, customers and beneficiaries. Conversely, this method frequently illustrates that some challenges perceived as belonging in other areas, for example marketing, poor sales performance or even a lack of leadership, have their roots in lack of clarity around purpose.

Purpose is a challenge for many leaders, despite all the work being done in this area. For instance, we see that some leaders seek to move forward and innovate, but do so at the cost of ignoring the past. When the history of a system is not sufficiently included – for example, the founders are forgotten – there is a stuckness that impedes powerful progress.

On the other hand, leaders can sometimes be caught in the past, by being wedded to founding expressions of the purpose that do not light up staff or customers anymore. Put simply, the founding purpose needs to be respected, but also continually evolved to meet the changing needs of the marketplace and society.

Another issue is that many ‘espoused’ expressions of purpose, despite good intentions and a great deal of money invested in some cases, are some distance from the ‘actual’ purpose that the organisation is embodying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such purposes – which are ‘laminated’ rather than lived – tend to have little impact on stakeholders.

To support rapid diagnosing of such issues, we have created a structural “constellation”, which reveals the ‘levels’ of purpose in a system. This mapping tool can be used 1-1 with a founder, in an intact team, or even in a group constellation using representatives. It also provides a good starting point for some lively conversations!

Whatever the context, the power of the mapping process is that it allows us to see the deeper reality and both the stuck points and higher potential of what is unfolding for us, our organisations and our customers.

The Hidden Orders of Change: the Method as Tuning Fork

Although doing the subject justice would require additional posts, this systemic approach is much more than a diagnostic or mapping tool. It contains a profound understanding of certain hidden, ‘Ordering Forces’ that allow us to attune an organisation to the energetic lodestar of its purpose, and create the conditions in which leaders, teams and the business itself can flourish.

From the perspective of this systemic lens, purpose is inherent to systems and not constructed. True purpose therefore needs to be discovered and articulated rather than simply invented through ideas and words. It is the first and deepest ‘Ordering Force’ in organisations, and – along with its constituent principles – answers the profound question of what an organisation’s place and function is in the world.

There are usually several core constituent Leading Principles (normally two to four), at the heart of the purpose. As our colleague Jan Jacob Stam has stated, these are an answer to the question: “What are we to the outside world?”. These principles could include, for instance:

·      Providing medical/nursing care and management (in hospitals)

·      Doing research and providing executive education and transformative learning (in business schools).

The constellating process shows that it is very important to work out which Leading Principle has priority. Indeed, what is sometimes thought of as lack of leadership – or even poor marketing – often turns out to be a lack of clarity around guiding principles.

Leadership Practices

There are two important points to make about the discovery process, and the leadership practices needed to arrive at a potent articulation of purpose:

1. First, the mapping work needs to be combined with robust dialogue that unlocks the collective intelligence in the room. The discovery of purpose for a team or business is a co-creative exercise that calls for a deeper quality of dialogue than often occurs in organisations. This requires the ability to not just assert but to ask catalytic questions; there also needs to be a willingness to listen, to share hard truths and to allow the greater wisdom of the whole to come through. Creating the conditions for such dialogue is an art – and science – that is underused by many leaders. It is, however, a capacity that can be learned.

2. Second, the process of attuning to purpose – using the constellating method – needs to include and ‘represent’ key stakeholders both within and outside the system, as part of an exercise in expanded perspective-taking. Exploring the purpose through the eyes of different stakeholders enables team members to connect their “why” with the wider world so that their beneficiaries are really served.

These two points can be illustrated by the following example:

EXAMPLE: A Senior Team

“It’s not a tell”, began the Chief Technology Office (CTO) of a public sector organisation. “It could be a tell,” he continued, “I’ve done it that way before – two hours and several Post-It notes later, you’ve come up with something. It’s expedient but it’s not effective. I want our team purpose to be lived not laminated.”

It was the opening line of the meeting. The CTO and his Senior Leadership Team (SLT) had set aside a whole day with the objective of finding and articulating a clear Purpose statement for the SLT, which was co-created rather than mandated and drew on everyone’s input.

“I’ve been here 28 years and I’ve seen a lot of days like this,” said the one woman in the team, kindly but somewhat provocatively, as the ‘check-in’ continued. “Things come and go – mostly go. It’s not just about finding our purpose, it’s about living it otherwise today will make no difference whatsoever.”

Finding and embodying purpose is not a simple, linear task. Whether we are looking at the “why” of a team or an organisation, both are embedded in a larger ecosystem. The team’s purpose does not exist in isolation – it obviously needs to align with the purpose of the organisation (whether in the public, private or third sectors), which in turn exists to serve the needs of a range of external stakeholders, customers etc. To crystallise a purpose that has a ‘wow’ for the team, as well as its beneficiaries, it is vital to take into account this larger, “whole system” context.

In this team’s case, after a dialogic process to elicit the leading principles of the SLT (which included building IT capability and providing governance), these were mapped by members of the team to find out which had more energy and which had priority – both internally and in the eyes of various key stakeholders.

This in turn led to the co-creation of a draft purpose statement (which wasn’t particularly honed or crafted at this stage). It was striking that by us all being on our feet, out of the circle of chairs, the level of engagement in the team had changed markedly. It was clear that the usual rules of conversation – who typically spoke the most, who agreed with whom etc – had been helpfully disrupted.

We then created a further stakeholder constellation, with each member of the SLT volunteering to represent one of the key stakeholders (CEO/COO /Divisional Directors/Staff/Externals etc). We asked the “representatives” to put their own thoughts to one side and step into being the stakeholder or “clump” of stakeholders that they’d chosen to represent, and place themselves in terms of distance (and direction) from the purpose statement.

It quickly became apparent that the draft purpose was incomplete. Whilst some of the stakeholder rep (Finance and Divisional Directors) were close to the purpose statement and energised by it, the others were spread right across the length of the room.

We explored this “embodied map” together by hearing what each person noticed about where they were standing (including sensations, feelings or observations about how close or far apart they were from the purpose or each other). After gathering this data, which – by the intakes of breath and laughter – appeared to be accurate to the SLT, we asked: “What’s the one thing that would make you take a step closer to the SLT purpose?”

The responses came quickly and easily. We scribbled down this powerful data as we went around the room, gathering the insights that were flowing in our midst. The energy behind these observations felt very different to the cynicism at the start of the meeting.

This led to an expansive space of deeper dialogue about the purpose of the SLT in leading the wider system. Following this dialogue, we moved into a further co-creative process to come up with the next version of the purpose statement, and a potent articulation suddenly – and unmistakably – arrived, to the relief of everyone present.

This client story illustrates a pattern we see time and time again in our work. When a community attunes to its purpose through a wide-angle lens of interdependency, it usually comes clearly and easily into focus. Teams, departments and organisations do not exist independently – they occupy a niche in an ecosystem. When a collective attunes to purpose in this wider context, they are more likely to discover their best future potential rather than living out an espoused purpose that does not release the full potential of the system.

“Right-Sizing” Purpose

More generally, this work with mapping purpose reveals the critical importance of finding the right size for a team or organisation’s purpose, beyond ideas about purpose. For instance, we have recently heard the resurrection of ideas about “planetary purpose” or – from green voices – that business purpose needs to be about contributing much more actively to the UN sustainable development goals. Maybe. This work certainly shows that many organisations have the potential to play a much larger role in addressing our shared social and environmental problems.

However, we have also worked with professional services firms whose purpose is simply to provide a good value, excellent service to its customers. In two cases, efforts to find a broader, grander, societal purpose were revealed to be an expensive and burdensome distraction. Some purposes need to expand, some need to deflate a little! In our view, finding authentic, potent purpose is much more important than any ideology or ideas we may hold.

Attuning to Personal Purpose

It goes beyond the scope of this article, but this capacity to map, discover and attune to purpose – using the systemic approach – is also true for individuals. We can quickly see the real condition of our deeper purpose, and what blocks and enables us reaching our full potential. This includes our level of attunement to the organisations for which we work. For example, we can help a client rapidly answer the question: “does my organisation’s purpose and current role really resource my own deeper purpose or not?” We can also attune to our own Leading Principles as an individual, and arrive at a potent articulation of purpose.

Closing Reflection

In this age of disruption and uncertainty, helping people and organisations become fit for their deeper purpose – so they can serve their beneficiaries and ecosystem more fully – is surely one key aspect of the leadership most needed right now.

In our experience, it is this weave of approaches – integrating the systemic method with whole systems dialogue – that best enables a team or organisation to attune to its sense of mission. By unlocking collective intelligence through dialogue and exploring the best emergent future for all the different stakeholders, purpose can truly become a magnetic force, channelling people’s energy to serve the greater whole.

As well as enabling a powerful discovery process to crystallize purpose, the systemic approach also reveals quickly and easily the key “acupressure points” for change – so that the benefits of a purpose-led approach can be activated for individuals and the system as a whole. Incisive and swift attunement to the true potential of purpose is a unique contribution that a systemic lens is able to bring.

If you would like to discover more about your own personal or business purpose using this approach, you may be interested in our one-day workshop on 26th April 2017 in London. For more information go here: goo.gl/O5Mt43 This offers a taste of our longer Purpose Programme exploring purpose-led leadership.

This article is a prototype of a chapter from a forthcoming book. We’d welcome, and appreciate, your feedback and comments as part of the creative process.


1. See for instance: The Business Case for Purpose, Harvard Business Review Analytics Services, Harvard Business Review, 2015, http://hbr.org/resources/pdfs/comm/ey/19392HBRReportEY.pdf

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