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Purpose-Driven Leadership

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, "is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth, and like a spear.

In some versions, the blind men argue about their conclusions, suspect the others of lying, and come to blows. In other versions, they stop arguing, start listening, and collaborate to “see” the full elephant. The blind men learn that they were all partially correct and partially wrong.

This allegory illustrates how our perspectives shape our understanding of the world around us, but, what else can it tell us about business, strategy, and leadership? The connection is there, and we just need to unpack it to reveal a striking truth.

Think about your business:

  • What are other people seeing and experiencing that I am not?

  • What is their truth? and, What is mine?

  • What part of THIS elephant is hidden from me? and, From them?

"We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." — Werner Heisenberg

Business Elephant

Balancing Purpose and Outcomes in Business Leadership

Similarly to the elephant allegory, in business, leaders often focus on individual parts of their operations without considering the broader purpose behind their actions.

Purpose in business is like understanding the whole elephant. It's the overarching reason why a company exists, the impact it wants to have on the world, and the values that guide its decisions. Just as the blind men needed to understand the elephant as a whole to truly comprehend its nature, businesses need to understand their purpose to align their actions and decisions.

On the other hand, outcomes in business are like the parts of the elephant that the blind men touched—the specific results or achievements that come from the company's actions. While outcomes are important, they are only meaningful when they contribute to the larger purpose of the organization.

Leaders who are focused solely on outcomes without considering the purpose behind them are like the blind men who only see parts of the elephant. They may achieve short-term successes, but they risk missing the bigger picture and the long-term impact of their actions - and sometimes, the race to success.

Short-Term Results + Long-Term Vision = Sustainable Success

Leaders understand the importance of both purpose and outcomes. They ensure that their teams are aligned with the company's purpose, making decisions that not only drive short-term results but also contribute to the long-term vision. By keeping the bigger picture in mind, they can guide their organizations towards sustainable success and meaningful impact.

Successful leaders work tirelessly to align their teams around a common purpose, recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the whole is not the outcome, it is the purpose, it is the strategy, it is the business, and without business, there is no outcome.

Corporate Elephant

Leaders understand that everyone's perspective is valid based on their experiences. Rather than dismissing differing viewpoints, they work to integrate them into a broader understanding. They strive to make the complex simple, aligning people toward a common vision and purpose.

Leadership is about more than seeing the elephant; it's about recognizing that each part contributes to the whole. It's about crafting a shared vision that encompasses the diverse perspectives within an organization. It's about communicating the "why" behind decisions and strategies, allowing everyone to see the big picture.

But most importantly, it's about creating an environment where dissent is not only tolerated but encouraged. Just as the blind men needed to share their individual experiences to understand the elephant as a whole, leaders must foster an atmosphere where diverse opinions are valued and integrated.

In the end, it's not the pieces but the purpose that drives us forward in business and in life. Successful leaders work tirelessly to align their teams around a common purpose, recognizing, again, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Jack Welch

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (GE), is often cited as an example of a leader overly focused on short-term outcomes. While celebrated for his aggressive pursuit of profit, his leadership has been criticized for neglecting the long-term health of the company. Welch's emphasis on meeting quarterly earnings targets and his rigorous performance management system, which led to the firing of low performers each year, is seen as fostering a culture of short-term thinking at GE. After his retirement, his successor faced challenges stemming from this focus, as the company became overly reliant on financial engineering and cost-cutting measures. This approach ultimately contributed to a decline in GE's performance and reputation, highlighting the potential risks of prioritizing short-term outcomes over long-term purpose and sustainability in leadership.

Assessing Leadership Through Purpose

Are we sometimes like the blind men, focusing only on individual parts of our businesses without considering the broader purpose behind our actions? Do we, as leaders, prioritize short-term outcomes at the expense of the long-term vision?

Reflect on how you approach leadership and decision-making in your organization. Are you fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and integrated? Are you aligning your team around a common purpose that goes beyond immediate results?

Remember, just as the blind men needed to share their individual experiences to understand the elephant as a whole, leaders must encourage open dialogue and collaboration to grasp the full scope of their challenges and opportunities. Embrace the complexity of your business, but always keep the overarching purpose in sight.

"I can honestly say that I was never affected by the question of the success of an undertaking. If I felt it was the right thing to do, I was for it regardless of the possible outcome." Golda Meir

In the end, it's not the pieces but the purpose that drives us forward in business and in life. As you navigate the complexities of leadership, strive to see the whole elephant, not just its parts, and guide your organization towards a future where purpose and outcomes align seamlessly.

What part of the elephant are you touching in your leadership journey? What does it feel like, and how does it contribute to the bigger picture? Take a moment to reflect on these questions, and let them guide your path forward.

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