Why purpose matters

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms –  to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl

A big part of strategy making, is differentiating your business from others. Being able to help people notice what’s different between your product or service and mine.

In the beginning of the movie Dark Night, when Batman has just fought off Scarecrow and a group of Batman wannabes, an interesting conversation takes place:

Batman : Don’t let me find you out here again.
Brian : We’re trying to help you!
Batman : I don’t need help.
Dr. Jonathan Crane : Not in my diagnosis!
Brian : What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?
[Batman lowers himself into the Batmobile] Batman : I’m not wearing hockey pads!

Although meant to be funny, I can’t help but notice that last question to make my point:

What’s the difference between you and me?

The difference between you and me, is nothing more than how we answer the ‘why’ of our intentions: Why are you doing this?

Your answer will determine the intent behind your actions, which have profound influence in how you’re perceived. While the ‘wannabes’ are trying to help Batman out, they’re not doing it for the same reason he is. Batman’s purpose is to rid Gotham City of criminals, and he’s driven by the fact that his parents were killed by criminals. The wannabes just want a piece of the spotlight.

Purpose is a matter of life or death

Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl observed in a concentration camp during WWII that purpose is a matter of life or death. Frankl’s legacy, documented in Man’s Search for Meaning, included two major concepts that are critical to leading organizations:

  • People have an unassailable ability to choose their response to any given set of circumstances.
  • When people lose their connection to purpose they die.

Frankl relates an experience of being ill and huddling in the corner of a hut, simply trying to survive. Sick and fatigued, Frankl made a choice to volunteer for a work detail on the basis of how much good he could do for his fellow prisoners even though the easiest thing to do would be to stat put: a choice of action driven by purpose.

Even in mundane circumstances and even in the most routine of existences, people need some connection to purpose. The decisions people and organizations make about where, how, and why to invest their energy all stem from a need of purpose.

Frankl identified purpose as a basic life force by observing the way his fellow detainees faced the dire circumstances and indeterminate duration of their incarceration. People used several mechanisms to cope in the prison camps: mental games, conversations, and serving various capacities in the camp were all part of the daily coping rituals. Some prisoners’ sense of purpose consisted on surviving to a specific date; some aimed to survive to reunite with their families.

Frankl noted that those who lost their sense of purpose either died outright or committed suicide. One method for ending one’s own life in prison camps was to ‘run into the wire’. The barbed wire fences surrounding the camps were highly electrified and by running into them, people would electrocute themselves.

What this all means is that if we as leaders of organizations diminish the importance of having a purpose, we’re really encouraging people to ‘run into the wire’. On the other hand if we encourage a sense of meaning we’ll not only help channel the natural energies of people throughout the organization but also, as my online friend points out, we’ll .

The last paragraph points to an important question to drill point further: (customers, employees?)

Now that’s the power of purpose!

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