We live in an era of awakening purpose, and the emergence of purpose-driven organizations. Google the phrase “organization purpose” and you will find 748 million hits. Search “purpose” in books on Amazon.com and you’ll find over 500 new releases with “purpose” in the title in the last 90 day! And this makes a lot of sense.

People are developing vertically in a way that has them yearning for meaning and personal impact. Many people are working in organizations that have failed them or at least often have disappointed them. They are working for managers who have been trained to drive execution and process and quarterly returns. And in the midst of this focus on “doing” and “delivering results” sometimes the (human) “being” gets shortchanged.

Purpose evokes emotion and inspires action 

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” from 2009 has over 32 million views and a whole line of business around the idea of “starting with why” also known as The Golden Circle. The Golden Circle places purpose (why) at the center or root of an organization’s or leader’s marketing and communication strategy. And I believe this is solid advice in many ways. We know from Jonathan Haidt’s research that people are much more likely to “follow their heart” or their “gut” (the “Elephant”) regardless of what their rational mind (the “Rider”) is telling them.

Are we in a “post-fact” era? (Let’s hope not!) But facts don’t tell the whole story.

Even when the facts are undisputed – the facts are not always enough either.Cost-benefit analysis and return on investment don’t always give us the answer. We are living in an era where we have an abundance of information, but a lack of clarity – due to volatility (think markets, weather), uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and the pace is accelerating.We live in an era where management practices and leadership principles are focused on production efficiency, manufacturing excellence, and mass marketing of products. Is it any surprise that we have lost the focus on people, nature, and quality of life?

This imbalanced focus even shows up in our phraseology. “It’s business, it’s not personal.”  Well, I say it’s all personal. And many smart people agree with me.

Well, I have taken a strong stand on this topic.  It’s time to make work personal (again). To do work that matters. And luckily, many smart(er) people agree with me and they are starting to make it real.

From Toxic to Teal?

Frederic Laloux has written a thought-provoking book on this topic called Reinventing Organizations. In this book, he details his research about the emergence of Teal organizations. He argues very convincingly that people are miserable at work. That organizations have become toxic. And, in fact, that people, and millennials, in particular, want more. Teal organizations are evolving to address these specific societal conditions.

The three distinctive innovations of teal organizations are as follows:

1. The organization is a living organism with an evolutionary purpose of its own.
2. People get to bring their whole selves to work -including their emotions, their spiritual side, their sexuality, and whatever else makes them who they are.
3. And finally, these organizations are self-managed with little or no hierarchy. Everyone is viewed as a leader who can make important decisions, including financial decisions, using something called the advice process.

Clearly, most organizations are not operating this way today nor are most organizations ready to operate in this way. However, there is that “purpose” word again. It keeps showing up. The Purpose Economy, The Purpose-driven Life, evolutionary purpose in Teal organizations, the compelling purpose in the Bigger Game model…  And I completely agree about the importance of understanding or paying attention to organizational and individual purpose. Purpose is becoming a critical ingredient that is required for many people today to engage fully in their work, or their vocation. Notice that I said it’s important for many people.

But purpose is not enough. And Teal is a not for everyone.

Notice that I said that purpose is important for many people – but not for everyone. My observation in the last several years is that not everyone feels ready or interested in defining their purpose. In fact, some people struggle with the idea that they “should” have a purpose – wondering if maybe something’s wrong with them since they simply don’t have clarity around this word or idea of living a purpose-driven life. People are wired differently! I know many successful, intelligent and driven people who are very engaged with their work. So purpose is not a panacea. And it’s not a key driver for everyone.

Neither is Teal.  At least, not yet. A couple of years ago, I worked with an engineering firm’s CEO and CFO, introducing Frederic Laloux’s model, and the journey toward Teal. We designed an interactive introduction to their top company leaders, which include small group discovery sessions and dialogue around where they saw themselves on the journey toward Teal, and where they wanted to be. Interestingly enough, these top leaders could chart their history with the changes in (CEO) leadership over the years. They indicated that they had been a blend of Amber (hierarchy, process, efficiency) and Orange (innovation, growth, meritocracy) leadership, and transitioned to a blend of Orange and Green under the next regime, with a little bit of Amber.  They had no interest in aiming for Teal; it wasn’t compelling to them.  They wanted their leadership culture to become a healthier blend of Orange (meritocracy) and Green (humanistic), with a little bit of Amber.  In my view, they were spot on in their self-assessment, and very practical in their aspirations.

Even for those of us who are driven by a very strong sense of purpose – and I count myself as one of those people – purpose has a shadow side. We can get so wrapped up and committed to our sense of purpose that we neglect the other important ingredients of success and happiness – including discipline, hard work and open-mindedness.

Here’s the real message: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

In this emergent era – where “Teal” is becoming real, where leaders are committing to triple bottom line businesses, and where new organizational models and structures are arising such as for B Corps, social ventures, and conscious corporations – let’s be sure to take a balanced approach. Let’s give purpose its place for those of us, like me, who are driven by a clear sense of passion and purpose. And let’s balance that with hard work, self-discipline, appropriate amounts of process, structure and continuous learning. If we want to live lives of purpose and passion, we need the skills, discipline, rigor, and commitment to do the hard work that enables purpose-driven organizations to thrive in a world of increasing speed complexity and turbulence.

And we all need purpose-driven organizations to thrive.  We’re counting on you to lead the way – to show us how business can indeed be a powerful force for good.