Have you ever experienced an intimate conversation with 300 people? This week, I was fortunate to be part of Spelman College’s leadership conference entitled “Leading With Purpose”, led by my good friend Jane Smith. The premise of the conference was to engage in a dialogue and ask questions about the importance of purpose in our leadership. You see, purpose feeds our souls. It is what keeps us energized, powerful, and resilient in the face of failure. It is what we need if we are to deeply engage in the work we are doing, as if it was our calling in life.
The conversations left me intrigued, inspired and a bit restless.
There were many questions raised about the nature of purpose, the answers to which are not simple but it’s important to keep asking the questions.
1) A 20 year old asked “I want to know my purpose, how do I find it?”
2) A graduating senior asked “How do I decide whether I should pursue a degree in Law which is what I thought I wanted or pursue work where I can be in service to others?”
3) A 60-year old asked “Is it too late to discover purpose? How do I do that?”
4) Another woman asked “How do I overcome my fear to transition to a career that feels more authentic for me?”
5) Yet another asked “Do I pursue my work as my work and seek purpose outside of my work?”
6) Yet another said “Can I really be sure that I can be successful if I pursue a path of purpose?”
While it’s the job of each person to find their own answers to these questions, I will offer up mine. I have found that my work is so much more fulfilling because I have found meaning and purpose in what I do. My work engages me, it inspires me, it gives me an opportunity to feel like I make a difference. And yes, I am successful at what I do because I am inspired by it and that translates well to convincing others to be inspired by it.
How did I discover purpose? It started with looking back at experiences in my life where I felt fulfilled, worthy, and successful and looking for the common themes. Purpose also involves looking back at some of the deepest challenges we have experienced or needs we have personally felt. Our purpose is often to help fulfill those needs for others. The answers to these questions require tapping into your inner voice via journaling, meditation or other ways you have of connecting with yourself.
The women who spoke on the panels were inspirational in their authenticity and in the personal stories they shared. They talked of their accomplishments with pride. They were vulnerable in a way that connected them with the audience. Most importantly they helped me learn some important lessons:
1) It’s not so important what you do but to understand and connect with “why” you do it. One young woman who was a beauty editor talked about an epiphany she had one evening as she was working late: “I don’t really care that much about lipstick!” What she did realize upon reflection is the meaning she found in “lipstick” had to do with empowering women to feel beautiful in their own skin.
So many of us rush to fill our souls by doing “meaningful work” in non-profits or other causes. What I learned from this young lady was you can find meaning in any work you do – even lipstick! You can be a lawyer and still be in service.
2) Another young woman talked about purpose being “You have to give up your own dream to live God’s dream”. It was about letting the ego surrender in service to a bigger cause. She talked about not necessarily looking for a grand life purpose but looking for the purpose in the present moment in front of you. She openly talked about her spirituality being at the core of her effectiveness as a leader.
3) Leadership is about authentic self-expression that creates value. In listening to the stories, I realized that each leader was unique because of their unique story – their background, their challenges, how they were strengthened by their unique life experiences. Each of us has a story that wants to be told through our leadership. Our unique differences is what makes a difference and unless we have the courage to express our authenticity that story does not get told and something feels amiss.
A Bit Restless
The excitement and inspiration at the conference was palpable. Real women sharing personal stories of trial and triumph. The conversations at Spelman this week made me wonder what would happen if we had more of these conversations in our workplaces? Would people feel more empowered to be themselves? Would they be more inspired to seek the purpose in what they were doing? Would they be more engaged? Would the conversations at work change? Would the work change if it was infused by the very spirit of the people engaging in it?
So I left intrigued, inspired and a bit restless for some change in conversations in our workplaces. I would like to create a coalition for greater authenticity and sense of purpose at work. Will you join me? Will you share your ideas about how we can do that? Will you take a courageous step in your workplace to make it happen?