Purpose seems to be the hardest word

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Simon Bird


Everyone’s talking about purpose. I talk about purpose a lot – usually with teams and individuals. But not so much about my purpose.

But the Covid pandemic started a ball rolling…in relation to me (which I’ll come back to) – but also in noticing how incredibly hard it seems to be for teams, groups – and me – to say what their purpose is. Why is that?

I recently worked with a team of senior doctors – the most senior in a very busy hospital. I thought their purpose was clear – surely it was to provide leadership to the medical workforce at the hospital? I was wrong. It took this group of doctors nearly a day and a half to develop something they all felt they could stand behind. Sure, it involved leadership, but a bundle of other things as well. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the palpable nervousness from some when it came to disclosing their personal thoughts on this. Would they be judged by their peers? Would they use the right words? Would they come up with the ‘right answer’?

Did it matter? I think it did. Not having a shared purpose got in the way of them leading programmes of work outside their own personal interests – and added to the perceived bureaucratic infrastructure. If they didn’t know why there were there, why would anyone else?

This came to smack me in the face when the pandemic cleared my diary overnight. Like many other professionals, the abyss appeared to open rather suddenly. Then I was invited to an ad hoc meeting of around 8 people in a similar boat. Some I knew very well, a couple less well and a couple not at all. We used the group to give each other support, share where we were all at, and to try some things out with each other. One group member explored a purpose exercise with us. I’m not good at hiding how I feel so I suspect my face flickered at best – at worst, perhaps I rolled my eyes.

The process was useful – but the painful part was the sharing what I had written with someone else. I found it excruciating. My memory is I think I managed it with one person, but I – and others in the group – didn’t feel comfortable enough to say that out loud in front of the rest of the group. What’s that all about? Again – is it shame? Is it not having the right answer? Is it being surprised by what’s emerged? Is it coming to terms with what’s emerged?

At a personal level, purpose is about feeling self-worth. It’s a feeling we have when what we are doing is in synch with what we value, and our purpose – even if we’re not aware of it. On the other hand, we tend to be very aware of the signals we get when we’re out of synch with our purpose – feeling flat, anxious, bored, angry, irritated, upset or frankly indifferent. Notice when you’re feeling these things – there’s a clue there for you.

So, I will share what emerged for me as my purpose – next time. I’m ready to come out (again) – but this time as a cheerleader……and it’s taken me a while to understand what that means!

How about you?

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