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Purpose-Driven Leadership

At the recent SAPPHIRE NOW conference, General Colin Powell gave the ASUG general session keynote in Orlando, Fla. His perspective on leadership echoed many of the lessons I observed aboard the US Navy carrier "Abe."  I'll save more of his leadership insights for another blog post, but his comments about mission and purpose stood out. 

Photo: General Colin Powell at the SAPPHIRE & ASUG Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida.  Photo Credit: SAP Mentor Martin Gillet.


Mission ...

A clear mission statement is valuable in many ways, from helping the organization and teams establish goals and priorities, to helping individual employees feel aligned and invested in the company's success.

In the United States Navy, the mission of each aircraft carrier is:

  • To provide a credible, sustainable, independent forward presence and conventional deterrence in peacetime,
  • To operate as the cornerstone of joint/allied maritime expeditionary forces in times of crisis, and
  • To operate and support aircraft attacks on enemies, protect friendly forces and engage in sustained independent operations in war.



U.S. Navy's Mission and Purpose

I had the opportunity, recently, to visit a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier while it was on a training and shake-out mission in the Pacific Ocean.  I blogged about it First-Hand Lessons in Leadership, Operational Excellence, Mission, and Honor from the United States ... (in April before the trip) and First-Hand Lessons in Operational Excellence from the United States Navy (in May after just returning).  In the USS Lincoln Commanding Officer's welcome letter to me and my fellow visitors, Captain John D. Alexander shared his interpretation of their mission and purpose:

"We believe that preventing war is preferable to fighting wars. We focus on opportunities, not threats; on optimism, not fear; on confidence, not doubt. We recognize the challenges imposed by the uncertain conditions in a time of rapid change and recognize the necessity of U.S. sea power in the 21st century. Building on relationships forged in times of calm, we will continue to mitigate human suffering as the vanguard of interagency and multinational efforts, both in a deliberate, proactive fashion and in response to crises."


Photo: Admiral Mark D. Guadagnini (left) listens as Captain John D. Alexander welcomes our group of "distinguished visitors" on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. (CVN-72 on the captain's shirt is the ship's identifier as Carrier Vessel Nuclear #72, and the Admiral is identified as also the Commander of Carrier Strike Group 9 which includes the carrier Abe Lincoln, plus the airwing of about 80 jets/planes/helicopters and the accompanying ships that deploy with an aircraft carrier).


Maritime Strategy Emphasizes Peacetime Operations

It was interesting for me to see that in the 21st century, the U.S. Navy's "Maritime Strategy" to achieve that mission and purpose includes "expanded core capabilities" that now list "Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response" along with the expected offensive and defensive military capabilities.  For example, in "Operation Unified Response" during the initial hours and days of the Haiti disaster:

  • the USS Carl Vinson was a first responder
  • the US Navy delivered more than one million pounds of aid (food, shelter, medicine)
  • Nineteen helicopters flew more than 1000 hours of relief
  • More than 500 patients were evacuated
  • P-3s provided aerial survey and flight management
  • Humanitarian support efforts continue from the US military (and many others)

As a matter of fact, the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was the ship I visited, had a humanitarian mission as its first assignment.  Back in 1991, it was sailing toward the Persian Gulf to participate in Operation Desert Storm / Desert Shield when Mount Pinatubo erupted on Luzon Island in the Philippnes.  It immediately diverted to lead a 23-ship armada that moved 45,000 people out of harm's way and provided other support.  Since then, it assisted UN operations off the coast of Somalia as its air crews flew patrols over Mogadishu in support of the humanitarian work of Operation Restore Hope

Photo: The U.S. Navy has a multi-pronged mission, including Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Response (HA/DR). 


Set Goals, Add Clarity, Inspire Employess 

In the business world, we write mission statements at all levels to help set clear goals, set expectations, and prioritize. At SAP, our vision is to "make the world run better" by achieving our mission to "make every customer a best-run business."  That's something I can aspire to, as a business person and as an individual. 

However, in contrast, a mission statement that stood out from this collection of Fortune 500 companies is that of Cooper Tire & Rubber Company: "The purpose of the Cooper Tire & Rubber Company is to earn money for its shareholders and increase the value of their investment. We will do that through growing the company, controlling assets and properly structuring the balance sheet, thereby increasing EPS, cash flow, and return on invested capital."  Hmmm... not very inspiring (to me, at least) is this rallying cry to make more money for shareholders. 

An organization's mission statement is a starting point to help guide an individual's sense of purpose. General Powell emphasized the role of a leader in not only instilling this sense of purpose, but also using it to inspire employees / followers.  It's hard to motivate and engage employees when your mission states that the organization's purpose is to earn money for shareholders.



People Respond to a Higher Calling

In fact, in his research on motivations, author Daniel Pink found that organizations are focusing more on the "purpose motive," an overarching "transcendent" purpose. It helps get better talent, but also because when the profit motive becomes detatched from the purpose motive, people don't do great things, and bad things happen - like poor products, uninspiring places to work, bad service, ethical issues. He calls us "purpose maximizers" in his extraordinary video.

Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, notes in her new book "Open Leadership" that open information sharing - like wikis and even SCN - is successful when systems are self-reinforcing, with rewards and incentives that directly encourage you to do more. Participants are partly motivated by paying it forward - recognizing that they may need to take advantage of these resources in the future. But she observes that "another, more compelling reason is that people understand a higher purpose and a call for participation, a sense that they are helping the organization achieve its goal and that they have a valued contribution to make."


Intrinsic Rewards Trump Carrots-and-Sticks as Motivators

Gallup research shows that in average organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 5:1. In world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is closer to 8:1. So world-class organizations are able to attract and retain talented, high performing employees. Among the 12 statements that best predict employee and workgroup performance is: "The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important." [Caveat: In the last two years, survey results reflected the global recession and changing priorities given the economic instability and uncertainty. So a company's mission and purpose wasn't as important to employees as keeping their jobs.]

You see this high level of engagement reflected in the work ethic and commitment of most of the people aboard the USS Lincoln. Crew members from the highest ranking officers to the rank and file serviceman or woman believed in the Navy's mission and purpose, and saw how their tasks were critical to its success.


What's Your Mission and Your Purpose?

We are all CEOs of our own personal and professional lives, captains of our own ships, authors of our own life stories.  What is your personal and professional mission?  For what higher purpose do you exist, or strive to achieve? 

Are our aspirations shallow and petty, or big enough, great enough, and remarkable enough to make a lasting positive impression on the world around us?  Do our actions reflect the ethical foundations of this mission and purpose, in both public professional and private personal life? 

I was struck by the sacrifice, dedication, and professionalism of the U.S. Navy sailors and air crew members I met last month on the USS Abraham Lincoln.  I believe that a healthy dose of honest self-assessment and reflection are extremely valuable.  Although I fall short on a daily basis, all of us individually -- and collectively as companies or organizations -- can benefit from re-assessing and re-focusing on our particular mission and purpose, and then course-correcting as needed and re-committing ourselves on a regular, ongoing basis.