Understanding Purposeful Leadership & Ethical Leadership
How to become purposeful leaders and ethical leaders that act with integrity and make sense of the world, and make decisions, grounded in a powerful purpose
As transformational leaders, we will face many challenges each day. Which one do we focus on with our precious energy? How do we make decisions about what is right and what is wrong? How do we balance our desire to do good with the need for profit and results? And how do we stay grounded and in integrity as we go about creatively solving such challenges by leading transformations?
This is the domain 0f purposeful leadership and ethical leadership. It is the 2nd spiral in our 6 Spirals of Transformational Leadership:
Ultimately, we cannot achieve our fullest potential as transformational leaders without expanding our level of consciousness about life in general, and our specific life in practice. This means not just becoming more conscious of our inner world, but it also means asking, and attempting to answer, key existential questions about: the meaning of existence, the role of leaders in this world, and the point of this one short life.
I define genuine leadership purpose as a deep and authentic caring for people and planet, that orients all our work as a leader (and our career in general) and emanates powerfully from our bodymind whenever we tap into it. Purpose should not be confused with a mere social mission; or a vague desire to do good. It is a genuine calling we are compelled to follow that we feel deep within our bodymind.
We can only discern this embodied, experiential calling—that may or may not resolve into a clear ‘purpose statement’ in our mind (it does not really matter if we have the words for it or not as long as we know the feeling)—once we have cleared sufficient protective patterns away. The protective patterns we developed to get ahead in life—by being rich, smart, and successful—usually stop us being vulnerable and really caring; so they block purpose.
Purpose comes to us most clearly when we allow our heart to be broken apart by the suffering in the world. Rather than allow ourselves to feel dejected or despairing about this suffering, we feel a call to dedicate our lives to resolving it with our work as leaders. The transformational leader understands that when they see and feel, through the lens of purpose, there are massive opportunities for positive social and ecological impact hidden within every Transformational Challenge that is thrown up the threatening VUCA reality.
The transformational leader is unafraid to go on the lifelong journey to find, refine, and fully express her/his purpose in work and business; metabolizing all the inevitable failures of life and leadership into upgrade opportunities for his/her work as a leader. There is a major “purpose dividend” to this: a career with limitless meaning and fulfillment; a grounding in something that feels stable and essential even in dizzying VUCA environments; a limitless wellspring of energy and resilience that never falters; and the capacity to attract and retain the most transformational talent.
However, there is also a “purpose premium” to be paid: To become truly transformational, we have to risk giving up the safety net of following societal rules, parental expectations, and organizational career tracks and truly care about people and planet. Leadership purpose can only flow freely up from hara to hands once we have surrendered major protective patterns about what we ‘should’ do with our lives/careers and what people (for example, parents whether in reality or in our perceptions) expect us to be. We accumulate such socialized beliefs during our formative years as Contributors and Achievers.
Once we have dissolved the old box that tried to keep us safe by being smart or successful, purpose is free to arise from our hearts and hara and flow into our head and hands. Heartfelt, whole-hearted caring then pervades all that we do. Purpose is what I describe as “love-in-action”: an unstoppable force of connection and compassion that flows out into every decision and project. Purpose causes us to make different choices: from how we treat staff to our use of green energy. Everyone can talk about having a purpose: but if it isn’t demanding that we change actions, it is just talk. If purpose does not require us to stop doing things and give up conveniences, then it is just marketing.
When we are out of integrity, “off purpose,” we increasingly feel, deep in our heart and hara, incongruence: a disturbance in our field. When we are congruent—our actions and thoughts are aligned with the open heart of C&C Mode—we feel a jolt of reassurance that we are “on purpose.” The sense of shock and even disgust that arises when we are off purpose acts as a powerful fuel to shift our habits toward more ethical behaviors. Over time, and with many experiments, we develop and evolve a clear moral compass that guides our choices; and allows us to be unafraid to be ethical, truthful, and radically transparent with team members, collaborators, and customers.
At the heart of the lifelong adventure of purposeful leadership is to joy that comes from refining our life/leadership philosophy in active dialogue with the natural world. As we converse, we clarify our evolving, alive, biodynamic moral compass. This is an expressly philosophical endeavor to raise our consciousness; and to increase our existential intelligence. It is thus a ‘spiritual’ journey toward increased enlightenment; making our decisions in everyday life from a place of awakened, connected, and compassionate consciousness.
Harnessing Bio-Transformation Theory & Practice—rigorous science woven together with equally rigorous wisdom—we look to the scientific method to give us the best available knowledge about the things we can see and measure objectively. Yet we also become comfortable with the stark reality that, although science can give us rigorous knowledge about the facts of matter, only our inner intuitions and insights are reliable guides to matters of conscience.
Thus, we realize that all our business, political, consumer, and relationship decisions must be based on both objective ‘facts’ (data about our citizens, users, customers, and markets) and our constantly refined, yet always subjective and intersubjective, moral intuitions. Wonderfully, social science research has shown that this is a powerful (and lucrative) way of making decisions: City traders who use data and intuition together make far better returns than those that use just one of these forms of decision making.33
Legendary politician Henry Kissinger stated that leaders need to make important decisions without perfect data; and there never is perfect data about the future as it always comes from the past. Kissinger said: “The dilemma of the statesman is that he can never be certain about the probable course of events. In reaching a decision, [s]he must inevitably act on the basis of intuition that is inherently unprovable. If he insists on certainty, [s]he runs the danger of becoming a prisoner of events.” Waiting for the ‘right’ information paralyzes us and locks us into stasis.
As transformational leaders, we must often make uncomfortable decisions that impact a lot of people before others would be comfortable to make them. We risk ire and blame from all sides as we do so as many will disagree with our choices, as all leaders find out eventually.
The difficulty comes because we cannot use eternal moral principles—whether from religious rules or rational axioms—from the past to make great decisions in an alive moment that has never occurred before. We have to go where we have most insight into the alive moment: within our own bodymind. This means learning to check in with ourselves—pausing to sense into our biodynamic purpose-driven intuitions about the data and facts on the ground—before make tough decisions as leaders.
Therefore, to be a purpose-led transformational leader, we must take time for regular introspection and soul-searching; especially when we get an interoceptive-emotional intuition that we are off purpose; or out of integrity. This may mean doubling-down on transformational reconnection practices that keep us feeling grounded and connected even as others succumb to fear and despair. It may mean engaging in ideas and wisdom philosophies that deepen our existential intelligence about the purpose of life. And it may mean committing to regular contemplation to find our own truth within.
To become properly and powerfully purposeful—guided by our unfolding purpose as much as desire for profits/performance—we must develop a profound capacity for deep listening to our interoceptive-affective internal guidance: our intuitions and insights. We cannot grasp such inner guidance if our bodyminds are full of the loud clamors of stress, threat, and addiction: all we can sense is protective instinct and controlling intelligence.
By returning to transformational reconnection practices, we can quieten the storm within so we can intuit what our embodied wisdom is telling us. Then we can blend intuition with instinct, and insight with intelligence, to make ethical yet effective decisions that are on purpose. This is a Third Way creative tension between both data-driven and intuitive decision-making.
Sometimes this means not making a business decision until our intuition and insight resolves into a firm direction about what to do next that balances purpose with profit; and protection with connection. More likely, we will need to boldly step forward, armed with a little data; plus a deeply felt intuition. We can better make such bold and tough decisions in complex and chaotic ‘hot’ environments if we rely as much on our inner guidance as we do data about the market or community we serve. This invites us to get serious about refining our intuitive skills; and understanding how to ‘test’ out our life-affirming intuitions with others to ensure they are not noisy survival instincts.
To deepen your purpose and existential intelligence, I recommend that, as far as your circumstances allow, you purposefully avoid situations that severely lessen your integrity: particularly people and contexts that trigger addictions. If you have to be in such environments, develop strong boundaries to hold your own. Consider investing your precious time into metabolizing any ‘failures’ and ‘crushed dreams’ into deeper truths about why you are here; and how you can serve your fellow humans; and the planet we all rely on for health and happiness.
By regularly using reconnection practices to experience connective consciousness, most people will find their way to a truth beyond analysis and alienation: that we are all one, in some ineffable way. Once this discovery has been made, we access a source of love within that animates all genuine purpose. We may spend months and years reorienting our beliefs, habits, and career around the felt sense of an inalienable and unalloyed purpose that reveals itself most when we feel connected within (and facing a crisis without).
With this source of compassionate certitude within, a transformational leader is free to ensure every project or organization he/she leads is rooted in a purpose beyond profit: a business purpose that genuinely seeks to transform human suffering and planetary devastation. We do this without needing a ‘business case’ to persuade is: it is simply what our world needs to survive, and thrive.
Such a leadership purpose inspires and enables us to engage fully in global existential risks like pandemics, climate change, political instability, depression, and pollution; seismic societal shifts driven by changing generational ideas and ideals; and the exponential technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution, from AI to blockchain. We know that, as leaders, we can—and actually must—harness the engines of our business or institution to solve problems that matter for the good of humanity (as well as shareholders/stakeholders).
Purpose is the lens of creativity through which we can find our way to building ethical and regenerative business models that are planet-ready and future-positive. Purpose grounds leaders in values, meaning, and caring so they build ethical organizations and service-driven teams. The purpose-led transformational leader knows how to ensure everyone in the team feels like he/she is doing something meaningful for the greater good, and can help the group make quotidian decisions that lead to regenerative outcomes—that leave the world better—as well as profitable results.
By reconnecting with our leadership purpose, we generate a strong buffer between a Transformational Challenge—which often shows up in work clothes as an alarming crisis or shocking event—and our response. Purpose, as it is explicitly grounded in compassion, connection, and an abiding sense of love for self and system, absorbs the shock and provides us with an anchor of hope and meaning in the chaos of complex change.
Thus, purpose allows us to process rapidly the grief and anger that often come with crises—appropriate emotional reactions to the loss of old forms of order and safety—and return to a Transformational Challenge with compassion and co-creation instead of frustration and righteousness. We can then focus on a fitting Transformational Challenge; and be free to leave other challenges, or parts of challenges, for leaders with different purposes, skills, and talents.