181 CEOs sign a statement that they will move away from shareholder primacy and focus on improving benefits for all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. Larry Fink, head of the world’s largest investment company BlackRock, defines purpose as “the engine of long-term profitability” in his annual letter to chief executives. The World Economic Forum in Davos releases its Manifesto 2020, putting purpose at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Enterprises start promoting their purpose. Projects pride themselves to work from a higher purpose. Headhunters advertise that the new way to select high-caliber profiles will be through purpose. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
I’m excited to see that the concept of Noble Purpose (sometimes also referred to as ‘higher purpose’ or simply ‘purpose’) is finally gaining acceptance. In general, and more particularly in the more traditional-thinking business world. Definitely compared to 2010, when I founded the Global Inspiration & Noble Purpose Institute (GINPI) and became an explicit advocate for Noble Purpose in Life, in the economy and in society. Noble Purpose is no longer considered a fringe idea for idealists. It’s great to see something I dedicate my life to gaining traction and becoming mainstream.
But on some level, it worries me that everybody starts using the word Noble Purpose in any kind of context. What is meant to be singular and authentic, seems to be turning into something temporary. As it always happens with ideas when they get popularized and become a hype. It worries me, because Noble Purpose is not ‘just’ a marketing trick, a promo thing or a commercial gimmick that sounds good.
Noble Purpose is not a goal
The big mistake is that many people, enterprises and projects, are happy to communicate about their so-called purpose, but actually mean objective or mission. By that they miss out on the depth and specific power of what a Noble Purpose really is and should be.
To make my point: Hitler had a purpose. But for sure, there was nothing noble about it! The Third Reich was a goal, but nor the end, nor the means could be considered noble, when you massacre millions of people and install perverted discrimination machines. Just working towards something exciting or important or trend-setting or innovative isn’t enough to have a Noble Purpose.
A true Noble Purpose takes into account the positive and sustainable impact you have, directly or indirectly, on all parties involved. It’s about solving human, social, societal, economic, ecologic or other problems and offering services or products that will make a true difference, for the good.
Now you may think, “yes Olivier, but I’m no Hitler and that’s an extreme example”. You are right and it is an extreme. But keep in mind, these things are not black and white. They exist on a spectrum. Not being Hitler, doesn’t automatically make you Mother Teresa. There are many options in between. And what matters for me and for us at GINPI, is how a leader or an entrepreneur will sublimate themselves to put their ideas, creativity, inventions, power, fortune… at the service of something that transcends them. Something that is bigger than themselves.
So, I’d like to invite you to think this over. How noble is your purpose? What makes it noble? Who are you impacting and how are you impacting them? Are you sacrificing anyone (or anything) on the altar of your purpose or not?
Noble Purpose is intemporal
Hypes, by definition, come and go. They burn bright and fast (sometimes explode) and then they are gone.
If you are thinking of ‘taking up a purpose’, just because it’s the hip and trendy thing to do right now, because you think it will make you or your organization look good, or you want to surf on the current hype-wave of purpose, you are doing it wrong. It will have little long-term relevance and even less societal sustainable impact.
Noble purpose is something that stays with you and/or your organization your whole Life, just like your lungs or your liver. Even though, when we define a Noble Purpose, we use concrete wording and descriptions, it is of a profound and energetic level. Like, for example, the Noble Purpose we defined at Almirall: Transform the patient’s world by helping them realize their hopes and dreams for a healthy life.
I dedicate my Life to inspire high-impact leaders around the globe to create beauty, harmony and joy in everything they do. This didn’t come out of the blue, but stems from my deep connection with art, aesthetics and nature. I could have opened an art gallery or become an artist myself or go into interior design.
But I didn’t! Because I learned through deep connection with what is truly key and essential (for me), that beauty, harmony and joy are essential components in our Life, and in the Life of organizations. Hence, I want to inspire leaders to integrate these notions of beauty, harmony and joy so they can help Humankind, Society and the World progress substantially for the many.
The same goes for Danone’s CEO Emmanuel Faber, who ignited the One Planet-One Health transformation process, leading to the Noble Purpose Bringing health through food to as many people as possible. Or what Carlos Tavares, the CEO of PSA, inspired by defining as their central purpose Ensuring the freedom of movement by providing a safe, sustainable, affordable and enjoyable mobility.
Compare that with those companies going to a big branding agency to ask them what their purpose should be. As if this was something to be determined by market data, customer surveys and some clever copywriter having a great creative day. I have seen some enterprises doing that, and having difficulties to align the shareholders or the management team to come to a profound Noble Purpose. The exercise of letting their purpose ‘emerge’, was laborious and difficult, and often led to nothing more than a marketing slogan, a tag line or an intention, promoted and presented as a Noble Purpose.
If your Noble Purpose isn’t a real Noble Purpose and stands for true transcendence, how do you expect to align around the essence of it and your people to integrate and live it? How do you expect to motivate and engage your people, if they see how, to you, this is just another cog in the transactional money-making machine? Do you think it will attract the right people, customers, employees and partners, if they can see right through your latest marketing trick?
Noble Purpose is not a marketing trick
Noble Purpose should always have been and always should remain a key focus of organizations and people around the world. Whatever the size or scope of the enterprise. Whatever the organization!
However, in the years that we’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen a growing trend of Noble Purpose used as a veil to hide vulgar marketing, transactional sales or inconsistent HR processes. I guarantee you, if you treat Noble Purpose as nothing more than a marketing trick or just a ‘thing’ you do to become part of the newest trend, that will inevitably lead to economic or societal failure. People will discover your bad intentions and see your transactional approach for what it is.
We’ve had some requests to consult for so-called exciting purpose projects or transformations and have declined without hesitation, because the real intention was to use – I should say abuse – the current hype around Noble Purpose for marketing and PR reasons, but not to contribute to the much needed progress of our human race, and how we live more balanced, eat better, travel differently, work more engaged and create smarter and nicer things.
I call upon those who mistakenly use ‘Noble Purpose’ only for those transactional reasons, for image or reputation, to change terminology and refrain from confusing the general public. Talking Noble Purpose is being and acting from the essence, not promoting a ‘nice image’.
If you truly want to become a purpose-driven human being, leader, entrepreneur or organization, it means stepping into the realm of increasing consciousness, having deep philosophical reflections about the essence, confronting tough yet powerful questions of what really matters to you, and accepting that you’ll need to address them.
Discovering and defining a Noble Purpose is both an intense spiritual process and structured tactical methodology. It’s a way of being and doing that is going to transform our economy, our society and the world. It’s definitely not for pussies! It’s for the well-intentioned, the ones who want to leave a legacy and those who care for others, our environment and the world. So, what about you? Are you up for it?
Listen to my appearance on the podcast Off The Shelf about my book, the purpose hype and my hopes for the future.
Photo of Davos, Switzerland by Prateek Keshari on Unsplash