Your Purpose Must Be About You

Guest post by Jurgen Appelo

I’m a writer. It’s the one thing that I intend to do for the rest of my life. That means, when I focus on writing, I cannot focus on knitting. Somebody else will have to do the knitting, so I can focus on the writing. And maybe later, I can trade my wonderful book for someone’s beautiful sweater. This concept applies to all other professionals too. Everyone is entangled in a web of economic dependencies, and therefore, the purpose you choose for yourself should somehow generate value for the others around you. Or else nobody will give you a knitted sweater.

This all makes perfect sense to complexity scientists, who have known for a while that complex adaptive systems find a global optimum through local optimizations and interdependencies. (At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman) The parts in a complex system all try to optimize performance for themselves, but their efforts depend on the dependencies imposed on them by the parts around them. With a mix of competition and collaboration, the parts interact with each other without any focus on a global purpose. Nevertheless, the end result is often an optimized system. Biologists call it an ecosystem. Economists call it an economy. I call it common sense.

Putting the “Why” in Your Mission Statement

Most management scholars and experts have ignored the insights from the complexity sciences (or are unaware of them) and some have suggested goals for teams, and purposes for businesses, that are too narrow. There are many corporate mission statements in the world expressing ideas such as, “Make money for shareholders”, “Put customers first”, and “Achieve superior financial results” (The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management by Stephen Denning). In each of these cases, the purpose of the organization is (too) narrowly defined as providing value to one type of client or stakeholder.

Management consultant Patrick Lencioni analyzed the various kinds of mission statements that organizations define for themselves, and he found goals that have been created with a focus on clients (“Delight the customer”), community (“Serve the city”), employees (“Put workers first”), and business owners (“Create shareholder value”) in The Advantage. Besides the limited focus on just one kind of stakeholder, the biggest problem I have with such mission statements is that they usually explain who, but not why.

Focus on “You”, Optimize for “Everyone”

Among the different kinds of mission statements, Lencioni also found examples with a primary focus on industry (“The work we do”) or greater cause (“What we want to achieve”). I think these are better choices because they allow for local optimization (which is fine), while not turning the focus on just one external relationship (which is not). For example, I could define my purpose as “becoming a great writer” (the work I like to do) or “helping people worldwide to enjoy their jobs” (the greater purpose I’m striving for). I have complicated value exchanges with many clients, including readers, writers, speakers, consultants, trainers, organizers, and freelancers, and some even more complicated exchanges with my spouse, friends, and family. Complexity theory allows only two clients to see themselves as more important than all the others: me and everyone. Dawkins, Kauffman, and many other scientists and philosophers would agree that it amounts to the same thing. By focusing on me, while adhering to constraints imposed by others, I help to optimize the whole for everyone.

photo of Jurgen Appelo

Jurgen Appelo is Europe’s most popular leadership author, listed on’s Top 50 Management Experts. His latest book Management 3.0 Workout, full of concrete games, tools, and practices, is available for free.

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One Response to Your Purpose Must Be About You

  1. Norma Simons says:

    Good and timely article. I am in the process of revisiting the mission of my company. However, not quite sure I agree with or understand what you meant by this statement:

    “By focusing on me, while adhering to constraints imposed by others, I help to optimize the whole for everyone”

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