In hindsight I should’ve anticipated there’d be a backlash.

You can put “Provocateur” into your title without expecting some provocation to come back at ya. Some debate. Some discussion. Some disagreement. That’s just karma.

I’ve written a fair bit about Purpose in recent blogs. It’s a popular subject and certainly one close to my heart.

But what makes it particularly personal is that I’ve experienced first-hand the difference between organizations who have a clearly-defined, well-articulated and well-understood Purpose – and those that don’t. Titling a recent post “Without Purpose Your Organization is Rudderless” wasn’t just an attempt to score highly in nautical search results. Its something I feel deeply.

So what’s there to debate?

Well actually, it would seem there’s a fair bit.

Two friends that I admire deeply took me to task on my interpretation of Purpose.

Must Purpose always be Good?

It’s easy to point to Zappos, Patagonia, IBM and Red Bull and all the storied examples and wax lyrically about Purpose. But does that mean that other successful companies lack Purpose – or is it that we’d rather not discuss what their Purpose is?


Enron – which I had personal experience working with.


BP – the actions that preceded Deep Horizon” might suggest their real Purpose isn’t driven by an abiding love of the environment.

GM – the ongoing US litigation scandal and how whistle-blowers were considered internally might suggest another, darker Purpose at play.

And what about the much-loved, admired and emulated Coca-Cola Company.

For several years they battled an embittered backlash in India over depleting the water tables. More interesting was this recent article in BusinessWeek detailing how the organization is attempting to regain #1 share for their signature red can.

Buried within the article “Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem” is a candid account of how a zeal to push sales volume in the US lead to the much-maligned phrase “Super Size”, gave rise to ridiculously outsized portions and, likely contributed, to the associations of soda with childhood obesity and so on.

You might argue those actions were representative of an earlier “Purpose” but you can’t deny they fly in the face of an organization that purports to exist to create moments of happiness.

Purpose must benefit customers and society

Ironically in the same BusinessWeek as the Coke article above, was another that highlighted the lengths that Purpose-driven organizations are supposed to go in defense of their Values and Ideals.

Ben & Jerry’s is in the midst of a disagreement with parent company Unilever over moves to mandate GMO labeling of foodstuffs. Ben & Jerry’s position is that customers deserve to know exactly what’s in the food they eat. Unilever is concerned that the provisions are ambiguous, impossible to enforce and will add substantial cost and inefficiency to their supply chain and production. Unilever, to their credit, are giving Ben & Jerry’s autonomy in this decision.

Both are acting within their Purpose but which organization is getting kudos and which is being lambasted?

As more and more evidence accumulates that consumers want – nay, expect – organizations to be transparent, societally-aware, environmentally-neutral, positive contributors to the world, what is any ambitious CEO to do.

The Consensus: Leaders Must Be Self-Aware

For the record, neither friend was advocating a Purpose of pillaging and scorched earth. Far from it. In fact both violently agreed that any Purpose has to be built from an organization that is ruthlessly self-aware.

If your sole purpose is to create an organization for acquisition, don’t talk about longevity and legacy. Your actions are going to belie that Purpose.

If you’re not prepared to stamp out bureaucratic processes that impede customer satisfaction, then you can’t state your Purpose is customer-centricity. Your behaviours run counter to that Purpose.

Ultimately, your Purpose is just that. Yours. You have the responsibility to fashion it in a way that echoes your views and your ideals. They may just not be one’s that we share.

But if Purpose is intended to drive all decisions you make, just be self-aware enough to be honest about what that Purpose really is.

Because, if you aren’t, then I can almost guarantee Joe Public and Joe Employee will quickly discern the difference between your espoused and your real purpose and your reputation and performance will surely suffer.