Research Paper: The Importance of Purpose

Mark Bishop_Research_PaperResearch Paper By Mark Bishop
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)


As I developed both my coaching model and power tool for the certified coaching program at ICA, I spent a good deal of time considering the importance of purpose in life and leadership.  In my experience, many people go through jobs, companies, and careers based merely on what opportunities; roles, companies, or assignments; come available and without sufficient consideration of what makes them happy.

I’ve seen many colleagues pursue opportunities because they felt it might be a good career move, without regard to what they enjoy doing and how they want to contribute.   We spend an inordinate amount of time in our working environment; it amounts to more than 13 years of the total lifespan for most adults.  With that much significance on our working environment, it pays to focus on what makes us happy at work and try to maximize that feeling as much as we can over those 13 years!

With this thought in mind, I set about to research the importance of having a purpose or understanding one’s purpose.  My thinking initially was that we each have one singular purpose in our lives.  My research led me to understand that our purpose can, and often does, change over the course of our life.  Circumstances in our lives, in our careers, or in the world, influence our purpose.  A world pandemic, for example, could certainly impact our thoughts on purpose.  My research is centered on the importance of purpose applied to the professional world as I develop my skills as a leadership coach.  Of course, much of the research can easily be applied to other aspects of our lives.

What is the purpose?

Merriam-Webster defines the word purpose as:

  • to propose as an aim to oneself
  • a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution
  • to propose as an aim to oneself

It includes the following synonyms:

  • Intention, resolution, determination, ambition, aspiration, dream, goal, objective

It is worth noting that missing from these definitions and synonyms are words like an opportunity, circumstance, good fortune, coincidence, or fate.  This implies that purpose is decided, directed, and intentional.  At Berkley’s, Greater Good Magazine, they remind us that “to psychologists, the purpose is an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world.” Having a purpose is something that is meaningful to us and has a positive impact on others.  It is the accumulation of a series of actions and events that occur over time, an expedition across time with a point on the horizon as our compass.  For those with an identified purpose, that journey is in a specific direction and less subject to circumstance.

Why is purpose important?

Research suggests that having a sense of purpose, having a mission in life, having a reason behind your decisions and actions can actually lead to a longer, healthier life.

“Having a purpose in life has been cited consistently as an indicator of healthy aging for several reasons, including its potential for reducing mortality risk. In the current study, we sought to extend previous findings by examining whether purpose in life promotes longevity across the adult years, using data from the longitudinal Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) sample. Proportional-hazards models demonstrated that purposeful individuals lived longer than their counterparts did during the 14 years after the baseline assessment, even when controlling for other markers of psychological and affective well-being.

Moreover, these longevity benefits did not appear to be conditional on the participants’ age, how long they lived during the follow-up period, or whether they had retired from the workforce. In other words, having a purpose in life appears to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.” (Hill &Turiano, 2014)

In addition to living longer, there is evidence to suggest that people with a high level of purpose are physically healthier, more likely to take care of themselves, and have lower stress levels than people without a strong sense of purpose.  (

If being healthier and living longer isn’t reason enough to seek out a clearer understanding of our purpose, there is evidence to suggest that knowing one’s purpose can lead to better financial success and decision making.

Research Paper: The Importance of Purpose 1

“This sense of purpose was also found to translate into greater financial success.  The study found that people with this clear sense of purpose in life were much more likely to make financial decisions that support these longer-term, downstream goals rather than squandering their resources on short-term and impulsive decisions.” (Krapivin, 2019)

If living longer, being healthier, and being more financially sound still fails to motivate us, maybe having a greater impact on our work environment will push us over the edge to pursue an understanding of our purpose.

“This is where purpose comes in. Simply put, having a sense of purpose in your job means that you feel that your work makes positive contributions to the world, beyond earning yourself a paycheck or improving your company’s bottom line—you feel a commitment to something bigger than yourself.” (Wolfe, 2015)

The significance of managers who have a sense of purpose goes beyond the manager and extends to the employees who work for them.

“The report quite clearly shows that employees tend to be both happier at work and more productive when they are being led by managers who have this clear sense of purpose, with those fortunate employees more likely to put in an extra effort and less likely to quit their jobs.” (Krapivin, 2019)

Having a sense of purpose makes us better leaders. Authentic leaders have a sense of purpose, knowing what they are about and where they are headed. “Purpose manifests itself as passion. Passionate people are interested in what they are doing, are inspired and intrinsically motivated, and care about the work they are doing.” (Northouse, 2017).

Understand their leadership purpose so they can align people around a common purpose. Purpose defines the unique gifts people bring to leadership challenges, through which they can align others with their purposes to create a positive impact. This is far more important than focusing entirely on achieving success in metrics like money, fame, and power, yet ultimately produces sustained success in those metrics as well. (George, 2011)

Burning Platform vs. Burning Ambition

So many of the people I have worked alongside over my career are running from one crisis to the next.  They are constantly putting out fires and fixing problems.  This behavior is all too often rewarded in the corporate world. These people are seen as heroes, as ‘go-getters,’ as problem solvers.  While the notion of a burning platform will tend to get people motivated to act, it is not a healthy or sustainable motivator.  Reacting to an emergency stimulates adrenalin and anxiety, neither of which are conducive to clear, rational, creative thinking.

“In the world of burning platforms, there are way too many pyromaniacs.” (Fuda, 2018)

Burning ambitions provide greater, more sustainable motivation.  If you are running away from something, you aren’t looking at a map.  If you are running towards something on the horizon, you are much more likely to use a map to guide your way. Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great (2001), calls the ‘burning platform’ a myth of current management practice and further claims they are destructive behaviors, often leading to a pattern of failure he calls the doom loop. “Aspiration is a far more important motivator; sustainable change requires the fire of a burning ambition.” (Fuda, 2018)


In leadership coaching, we are not only focused on the leader as an individual but on their effectiveness in leading others to successful outcomes.  Research shows that employees are happier and more productive when they are led by managers who have a clear sense of purpose. This research also reveals that only 20% of managers consider themselves purposeful leaders. (Krapivin, 2019)

In many organizations, there is a strong priority placed on positions of authority and influence.  These are often measured by the team’s size, the budget managed, and other visible gauges. The status of a leader is often incorrectly measured by these criteria.  The larger the group, budget, or office, the greater the leader is thought to be.  These are inaccurate measures of effective leadership.  It is this perception that often drives individuals to seek these positions, even though attaining these roles may not bring fulfillment.

I have seen this many times in my years in Human Resources; the desire for a job title, an office, or to manage more people, drives decisions and actions that are not necessarily consistent with the client’s purpose.  This tension begins to create dissatisfaction and discontent, which often leads to poor performance or disengagement.  As a coach, do not underestimate the drive for these trappings and how much this can influence the client’s decisions.  I have worked with many leaders that do not feel joy or excitement in dealing with large teams, yet they hold onto these teams with a fierce grip.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and current professor at Harvard Business School, says

“Before anyone takes on a leadership role, they should ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to lead?’ and ‘What’s the purpose of my leadership?’”According to George, if the answer to those questions lies in power, prestige, and position, there is a risk that internal desires and purpose may go unsatisfied.  He believes that while these are not inherently wrong with these objectives so long as they are tied back to the individual’s inner purpose.  (George, 2011)

A helpful activity is to work with the client to define a purpose statement.  This is a brief written description of the client’s purpose that can be used for periodic reflection, for guiding decisions, and for grounding the client’s ambitions.  Keeping this nearby, your client can refer to this when making decisions.  It can also be revisited when circumstances change, or life events occur that might influence the client’s outlook on their purpose.  Explore with the client the meaningful moments in their lives that continue to inspire them, that fulfill them, that give them delight.

Getting to understand purpose can be done on a micro basis – exploring activities, accomplishments, and behaviors that the client enjoys and finds rewarding, then reflecting on why these activities bring joy and how to translate that into purpose.

It can also be done on a macro basis – exploring seminal moments in the client’s life that define who they are and what they enjoy.  Similarly, this can be translated into defining the client’s purpose.

The desire for a certain position in an organization can be a false trail to professional happiness and engagement.  However, for most clients, it can be a highly rewarding outcome to discover and define the client’s purpose to guide career ambitions.  The client may have the same career ambitions after clarifying their purpose; however, the basis for them becomes clearer.  In some cases, the client may recognize their ambitions have been misplaced.  In either case, knowing their purpose enables the client to begin translating it into excelling in their position.

While our purpose may evolve and change over time, having a clear understating of our purpose is likely to lead to a healthier, longer, more financially successful life where we are more satisfied with the work we do, and we make better leaders.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how to live. Friedrich Nietzsche


Bill George, June 2011. “Why Leaders Lose Their Way”. Harvard Business Review.

Bill George, July 2016. “The Truth About Authentic Leaders.”Harvard Business Review.

Pavel Krapivin, January 2019. “The Financial Value Of Having A Purpose In Your Life”. Forbes

Brad Wolfe, March 2015. “Can Higher Purpose Help Your Team Survive and Thrive? A conversation with Twitter’s Niki Lustig about how the social media giant fosters a sense of purpose among their employees.”

Neil Si-Jia Zhang, August 2014. “Can Purpose Keep You Alive?” Greater Good Magazine,

Patrick L. Hill, Nicholas A. Turiano, May 2014. “Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood.”Psychological Science.

Peter Northhouse, 2016. “Leadership: Theory and Practice.” Sage Publications.

Dr. Peter Fuda, 2018. “From Burning Platform to Burning Ambition.”

Jon M. Jachimowicz, October 2019.”3 Reasons it’s So Hard to Follow Your Passion”. Harvard Business Review

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