“At first glance, it might seem redundant to emphasize people as the central focus of economics. After all, isn’t the purpose of economics, as well as business, people? Aren’t people automatically the central focus of business and economic activities? Yes and no.

“People certainly gain and benefit, but the rub is: which people? More than a billion children, women, and men on this planet suffer from hunger. It is a travesty that this is the case, a blight upon us all as a global social group. Perhaps an even greater travesty is that it does not have to be this way; the problems of human suffering on such a massive scale are not unsolvable. If a few businesses were conducted only slightly differently, much of the misery and suffering as we now know it could be eliminated. This is where the concept of a “people-centered” economics system comes in.”

Bill Clinton 1996



Joy of task.


Competitiveness (rewards & penalties).

And, lastly, Purpose (with a capital P).


Today, we seem to speak of these things more often in business, but it is around the word “Purpose” which most of the discussion occurs (although all the other words are components of Purpose).

Purpose has become one of those wacky words which gets mangled in a discussion.

I believe this happens mostly because I think we conflate aspects of Purpose:

  • Individual Purpose (a good thing).
  • Business Purpose (not a mandatory for success but certainly doesn’t hurt if embraced as natural extension of business).
  • Brand Purpose or Purpose in marketing ( a misguided idea used by marketing people who appear to have forgotten how to create & communicate value from the product/service they represent).

Now. To be clear. I am not a Purpose expert nor a psychologist, motivational expert or organizational guru. I am just a 50something business guy who recognizes how business has stripped itself of any meaning beyond efficient productivity (with random glimpses of effective productivity) and profit. In recognition I acknowledge, and embrace, the whole concept of making work more substantive, give people meaning in what they do in their careers (beyond simply getting a paycheck) and business accepting some responsibility for Purpose driven aspects (which positively impact society & culture).

Regardless. In speaking of Purpose & all these things I have found we conflate Purpose with a variety of things.


Conflating what Purpose is.

…………. Drucker …………..

Old school business people say “isn’t the purpose of a business to deliver a good product of value every day?” Yes. But I call that a functional competency.

Other people say “isn’t the purpose of a business to create customers?” Yes. But that is so transactional it could involve bribery, lying or snake oil sales.

Other people say “is the purpose of business to create shareholder value?” Yes. But I would suggest this has gotten business into the short term, make profit & “grow or die” shithole it is currently in.


Purpose, with a capital P, is a little more squishy. It’s about meaning & meaningfulness. It is also not seamless from a business perspective let alone an individual perspective. Business is about choices. I could say “I have a business to run & I want everyone to have some meaning every day they come in but I also know I can’t solve everything so my thought is everything we do will be grounded in X.” We will still do A thru D like every business to stay competitive but X? X we will not compromise on. This business has a Purpose backbone but can still have some unhealthy eating habits.

I would also say Purpose gets confused with Conscience. It may be an aspect of conscience, but it truly has more to do with meaning. We all want what we do to mean more than simply making a buck. It may be driven by a flickering of conscience, but inevitably the Purpose is when someone in the business decides “you know what, we put a stake in the ground here.” It has nothing to do with profits, growth or even shareholder value or gaining customers. It has to do with meaning & meaningfulness. It’s not self-serving other than it is a ‘right thing’ mental line in the sand you draw (which, yes, will have functional & physical decision repercussions).


All that said.


Conflating Purpose with Business Strategy.






That’s what a business is built upon.


I hear Unilever talk about “purpose” and my head explodes (and I get really grumpy). They talk about it as if it is some business strategy to make their brands more likeable & appealing. It’s Purpose Objectifying (or objectifying Purpose). It is a mangling of Meaning & meaningfulness. I think Unilever is full of shit the way they currently talk about Purpose. Yes. They may have good intentions & are just finding their way to what true Purpose is but along the way I wish they would just shut up.


They are not the only ones committing Purpose malpractice.

Rather than go into all the details just read Zach Mercurio’s “Sins of Whywashing Purpose.”

Suffice it to say too many businesses are using Purpose as a business strategy to differentiate themselves in the marketplace (it is not a business strategy).

Suffice it to say too many businesses are using Purpose to describe taking a stand on an issue (it is not supporting a Cause).

For example. Dove. I think Dove is conflating a Cause and Purpose. They are taking a stand on an important social issue (unhealthy focus on appearance), but that’s not a Purpose. If they truly were Purpose driven I would argue they wouldn’t have ‘female soap’ and ‘male soap’ but rather ‘soap for humans’ because looking your best isn’t an appearance competition (but that’s me).

I would point out one of the least discussed Purpose driven businesses I can think of – The Body Shop. I highly recommend everyone taking a minute exploring their story.


Do I believe businesses should be talking about Business Purpose? Of course I do. Not as a business strategy per se but I want businesses talking a larger role in addressing meaningfulness in work, addressing the fact businesses are part of the fabric of community  & society and addressing the fact businesses can have more impact on key larger issues than any government in existence.


Conflating Purpose with Brand (brand value).

Brand Purpose gets used because I think it is incredibly easy to conflate Purpose with brand value (hence we want to make it part of branding). This is easy to do. Let me give an example. If I had sat Ben & Jerry down at their old renovated gas station on the corner of St. Paul and College Street in Burlington, Vermont and asked them “what is your business Purpose?” Ben most likely would have sat back & scratched at his beard looking at me like I was from Mars. More likely he would have said we just think the world can be better, things can be done in a better way and if someone coming in and eating some of our ice cream gives them a glimpse of what could be, we would be happy with that.” Yes. Over time they’ve been forced to articulate this more specifically (environment, responsibility, etc) but in the beginning my guess is it would have been something like that.

Here is where we start conflating this into branding & brand value. Right up the street from the original Ben & Jerry’s was the University of Vermont Dairy store. You could walk in there to a small counter and get the best tasting, freshest, ice cream cone or carton of ice cream you have ever had in your life. Hands down the best. Better than Ben & Jerry’s (although I bet Ben & Jerry got their original base ice cream from UVM).

UVM Dairy Store shut down eventually.

Ben & Jerry’s is an international phenomena (brand).

It would be easy to draw a straight line between Purpose & brand value on this, but it would be a mistake. Ben & Jerry had character, personality & understood the delight of how an ice cream experience, surrounding a quality ice cream product, should be. The essence of their brand value resides in that. The Purpose was just something they did. It created an evanescence of “meaning” to the brand. Essential to their success? Heck. I don’t know. But what I do know is that at their core they have a Purpose beyond a simple ice cream cone which adds to their brand value, but is not their brand value.


Conflating Purpose & motivation.

Far too often we discuss Purpose & motivation as a causal or cause & effect relationship. In doing so we neglect the attitude mindset.

Yes. To actually incorporate Purpose into a business in a meaningful way that motivates/inspires people you have to have the right mindset.

This is a simple test.

As Dr. Jason Fox said: what gets people motivated about doing work?”

If you do not believe 100% of employees can be motivated in doing work, you cannot be a Purpose driven company. Period. Full stop.

You can be product centric, you can be customer centric, you can support Causes, but you cannot be Purpose driven.

Purpose is an “all in” attitude. You have to believe everyone has something inside them that says “I can be dynamic beyond simply functioning at work.”

If you say any of the following things, just forget about being Purpose driven:

  • Some people are just not motivated.
  • Some people just want to do the minimum.
  • Some people need bonuses, competition and ‘carrots’ (and sticks) to get them to do what their best is.
  • Some people don’t seek meaning in their jobs (its just a job).

Look. You know what? Some people may feel some of that, but if this is your starting point than your assumption is more likely “this is the majority and this is what I believe.” If this is your starting point you don’t believe the best resides in people to do what needs to be done but rather people are inherently lazy & will accept less than best. If this is your starting point, you don’t understand how to lead nor should you be a leader. More importantly, you don’t understand a Purpose driven organization.


Conflating Individual Purpose and Business Purpose.

I am an unequivocal individual Purpose person. What I mean by that is I think the path to a business purpose is to unlock the potential of each individual associated with the business. Not motivate but unlock (note: I do not believe you have to have a Business Purpose to unlock Individual Purpose). Encouraging Individual Purpose is all about each individual be the best they are capable of and therefore the business, in totality, becomes the best version of itself. Yes. I can have a business created on the foundation of Purpose and this can serve as a campfire for like minded individuals to gather around, but that isn’t motivation. That’s simply creating a Purpose driven environment, a dimension of culture, which individuals are inspired to bring to Life.


I love, & always have, lifting from the bottom up believing it makes an organization rise as high as it can get (rather than focusing on top performers to pull an organization up). Individual Purpose, to me, has always been how one enables people to become the best version of themselves (productivity wise & self wise). To be clear. I do not believe Purpose drives company performance, but I do believe it can enhance individual performance (i.e., they are more engaged) which CAN improve business performance — but the correlation is dubious at best.


Conflating Purpose and Doing

I believe people like working. I believe people like doing. Heck. I have even said exceptional doing can not only drive business progress but Purpose. I believe we like to discover things and learn how to do things. I believe we like to do things people say can`t be done.

Just say it`s impossible to fly to the moon, or no one can score 100 goals in a season, or run a mile in less than 4 minutes or create a handheld computer or even stuff 20 people into a phone booth. Dangle the undoable in front of People and you may as well consider it done.

We are doers. We are workers. We are thinkers (which is just a different version of doing).

It was Clotaire Rapaille who said: “the American Culture Code for work is WHO YOU ARE.”

I tend to believe there is at least a thread of this belief in all humans (it all depends on how you define ‘work’).  What I do know is if our job feels meaningless, then “who we are” feels at least partially meaningless (or less full) as well.  If we feel inspired by our job, if we believe that we are doing something worthwhile in our work, that belief bolsters our sense of identity. I say all this because “Purpose at work” chafes me. I think it needs to be flipped to “finding meaning in what you do.”

Is that Purpose? No.

Can that meaningful doing help you get closer to your Purpose? Yes.

We confuse & conflate that difference all the time.


Power of Purpose

I cringe over studies trying to show value of Purpose to businesses. Even the attempt at quantifying Purpose suggests it should be a capitalist behavior … and it is not. It is simply a human decision to do, or not do from a business perspective. As I said earlier, attempting to correlate causation between Purpose & business performance is dubious

That said. I will say, pragmatically, business is always better if everyone single person is maximized. Maximized in being the best version of who & what they can be. Therefore. The organization that encourages a purpose to be fulfilled encourages the ‘least’ to become their the ‘mostess.’ This has always seemed more efficient &effective than top/down or even focusing on having best performers pull ‘up’ an organization.

As for morally, well, top down always believes “good” trickles down to help the most vulnerable. It doesn’t. “Top” inherently knows this because they create sub-programs to fill in the lack of trickle down. and, yet, day after day they do the same thing. Bottom up morality lifts everyone. The least become more & the more become morer & even the most are pushed to become better. To be clear, as JP Hanson of Rouser pointed out to me, Purpose is not, and should not, be an organizational morality definition. Individuals will have different morality guardrails than organizational (that is actually a good thing for a dynamic organization). However. What Purpose does offer is a strong common moral thread for which an organization can find alignment upon.


Overall. That is the power of purpose. In my simplistic way I believe it enables “muchness” – that which is intangible but within every person, community & business. Every job shouldn’t be a valuable job, it should be a valued job – valued by the one doing it & by others around. If you find you are valued for what you do, you will inherently begin seeking to be better (and do better) because we know we are contributing. That’s meaning. That’s purpose (with a capital P). Measuring that seems stupid to me.


I do believe 1000’s of plumbers, nurses, teachers, small business owners could teach us more about meaning in work & Purpose driven behavior then any large business leader pontificating on some stage. They could do so because they understanding meaningfulness in what they actually “do” day in and day out. They know they will never be multi millionaires and understand the value in Life is found not in some unattainable mansion but rather the meaningful aspects they integrate into other people’s lives whether it be unplugging drains so the family can get on with being a family, hiring students to work in the restaurant and giving them breaks to study (and still pay them) or the nurse who spends the extra 15 minutes because that one patient’s father called worried.

It’s not profits in $’s, it’s in how the soul profited.


Let’s get Purpose right because it matters. It matters because the Purpose of business should be to benefit people and, inevitably, the greater good benefits (note that I did not say profits, performance or brand value). Purpose, to me, is an intrinsic energy source for meaning. That, to me, is a positive thing with little downside. We can argue the proof of upsides, but in my pea like brain I see Purpose as potential structural value creation, i.e., the entire organizational value output (engagement, productivity, etc.), from which all gets a lift (in tall, grande or venti size). All businesses should seek structural value creation.


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Written by Bruce