Behind every tainted enterprise, we like to think there is someone who simply forgot that the law applied to him. So he cut corners. He bent the rules. He did not consider himself to be a criminal he was just being "aggressive" and "entrepreneurial. And in the personal lives of those caught in scandal, we see more of the same self justifying explanations. It was not as if they were immoral: they were good spouses, involved parents, and concerned citizens. What is troubling about the faces we see going in and out of courthouses is that they look so like ours. Could they be us? Yes, if we find ourselves "going along" with behavior that we know to be dodgy. No, if we are people of Purpose.
One day, the Communists came to our farm in Greece. They wanted my father, but my father was long gone; he’d left to fight the Communists. So the Communists made do with the women, the 54 women in our village that day. The Communists demanded that they denounce my father. They refused—all of them. So the Communists shot them all. Two women survived, only because there were so many bodies that the wounded could hide under the pile.
Because of the tragedy that befell my family, I have never been in danger of forgetting the centrality of Purpose for any enterprise—because, even though my family was destroyed that day, their deaths added to the horrific body count that ultimately toppled the Communists. The women in my family died to help freedom prevail in their country.
As a boy, I believed that my dead family members—their names forever unknown, even in their own country—were nonetheless immortal. I wanted to be their equal, to be somebody who changed the world for the better. To do that, I concluded, I would not only have to be somebody important, I would have to stand for something—I would need to find a Purpose worth living for, and, if necessary, dying for.
Behind every tainted enterprise, we like to think there is someone who simply forgot that the law applied to him. So he cut corners. He bent the rules. He didn’t consider himself to be a criminal—he was just being “aggressive” and “entrepreneurial.” And in the personal lives of those caught in scandal, we see more of the same self-justifying explanations. It wasn’t as if they were immoral: they were good spouses, involved parents, concerned citizens. What is troubling about the faces we see going in and out of courthouses is that they look so like ours. Could they be us? Yes, if we find ourselves “going along” with behavior that we know to be dodgy. No, if we are people of Purpose.
My book, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, represents an answer to that kind of knife-at-the-ready, quarterly-results-are-all, get-a-corner-office-at-any-cost thinking. I acknowledge that an executive can rise quickly to the top by brilliant gamesmanship, but at some point you have to do the job. And you just might have to do the job when business turns bad and there’s a terrible crisis and your people are looking to you for leadership. When there’s no one left to knife, and there’s nothing you stand for, won’t the knives be pointed at you?
I believe that Purpose—not money, not status—is what people most want from work. Make no mistake: they want compensation; some want an ego-affirming title. Even more, though, they want their lives to mean something, they want their lives to have a reason. In the Middle Ages, craftsmen worked—with no thought of personal recognition—on cathedrals that even their grandchildren would not live to see completed. That didn’t bother them; in fact, it kept them going. For what was more important than doing God’s work? Bach, at the bottom of his compositions, wrote “to God alone the glory.” In the composer’s view, he was simply the messenger. You don’t have to be religious, or an artist, to want a Purpose in your life. It’s simply a matter of seeing the meaninglessness of modern material culture.
Fine, you may say, but how does that help me, a businessperson? After all, I am making material things, and I I am trying to make money as well. How can this other-worldliness be good for business?
In my late thirties, I went to Harvard Business School, and after graduating I joined Monitor Company, a strategy consulting firm founded by Harvard Business School professors Mike Porter and Mark Fuller. As I helped companies address their problems, I began to see something that no one else was really talking about—their problems tended to stem from a lack of idealism. Simply making companies more effective was too abstract a goal. To make better companies, one must start with developing better leaders. And to develop better leaders, one must help them discover a better Purpose—for themselves and their colleagues. Almost everyone now agrees that leadership is crucial to a business’s success. But too often this leads to an excessive focus on one individual and his or her character. We should not be looking for charisma from our leaders. We should not be looking for a father or mother figure at the firm they work for. Leaders are there to help us discover our own purpose in life, even to embody that purpose and act as a prototype. The result, though, is a paradox. Purpose leads to profits, certainly. But to work in this way, it must be pursued for its own sake. If it is treated as just a tool, a means to financial ends, then it will not work....
By Nikos Mourkogiannis