A sense of purpose

The Edge Malaysia, Zaki Shariff, 18th – 24th August 2014

Love deep conversations with old friends. There are no subject that are sacred or taboo, and when in full swing, these interfaces provide insights into the thinking behind certain actions that currently flood our media.

The frenzy about the encroachment into Ukraine by Russian separatists, the ongoing media fight over who has the majority vote in the circus that is still playing out in Selangor regarding the seat of the mentri besar, the effort to save Malaysia's pride that is Malaysia's Airlines- they all beg the question: why?

There is a fundamental human need for guiding ideals that give meaning to our actions. I call it purpose, and I identify it as one of the most potent tools for managing a community or an organisation.

I believe that purpose- not money, not status- is what people want most from their vocation, It is for many, the underlying reason for their action. It explains why people do the thing they do.

Purpose reveals the underlying dynamics of any human activity, the most fundamental issues involving motivation and behaviour, in either a community or organisation. It is the core energy, the element that fuels everything else, big and small.

From the war in terror to human right to do-mestic politics, we inhabit a world that, perhaps now more than ever, is defined by competing values and ideals are creatures defined by purpose.

Why? Because purpose urges people on. It is bigger than ambition or greed.

Purpose is bigger than tactics. Tactics represent the "how", the means by which leaders pursue their goals.

Purpose is bigger than strategy. At best, strategy is short- term purpose, a step-by- step path towards optimal results. But strategies are about means; they cannot be an end in themselves. An end is a reason. Purpose is a reason- a morally sound one.

Purpose is crucial for all truly successful enterprise. Let other play with "strategy" and "tactics" and "management". Those are merely board games player by the uninitiated, compared to purpose.

Purpose is the game of champions. Only strong- minded men and woman- adults with powerful intellect and real character and spines of steel- are suited for it. All other are bit players.

I write this in the hope that a high moral sense of purpose will impact the thinking of those charged with turning around our beloved national airline. There are many parties with differing, sometimes opposing views in that fray. But when there is unity op purpose, people shape their swords into ploughshares.

In the Middle Ages, craftsmen worked- with no thought of personal recognition- on cathedrals that even their grandchildren would not live to see completed. That did not bother them. In fact, it kept them going. For what is more important than doing God's work?. The good that we do will outlive us. Bach, at the bottom of his compositions, wrote SDG- Soli Deo Gloria, "to God alone the glory". In the composer's view, he was simply the conduit. We don't have to be religious or an artist or want a purpose in our lives. It is simply a matter of seeing the meaninglessness of a life unfulfilled. Once you have received the message, purpose may matter a great deal to you.

Yet somehow. this basic insight is too often lost on corporate leaders, who constitute one of the world's most influential communities. Business is often mistakenly thought of as a dispassionate, value-free pursuit, reducible to quarterly earnings report and valuation of brand equity.

But just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no automatons bound by the laws of finance in a company's executive offices. Great leaders are those who can articulate a company's vision and inspire their employees to work towards its realisation, bound together with a shared purpose.

Purpose is a function of character, and character is something we mostly notice by its absence. The headlines tell us, almost on a daily basis, about the gap between rhetoric and reality in politics, business, and government.

Behind every tainted move, we like to think, is someone who, in his quest for purpose, simply forgot that the law also applies to him. So, he cuts corners. He bent the rules. He did not consider himself to be a criminal - he was just being "aggressive and entrepreneurial and thinking one step ahead".

Could he be us? Yes, if we find ourselves " going along" with behaviour that we know to be dodgy. No, if we a people of purpose.

I believe that purpose is crucial because of its scope and ubiquity. It is large, much larger than any other element in a business or political formula. And much more involving.

A successful purpose will incorporate deeply felt awareness of ourselves, our circumstances, and our potential calling: what we think the world might be asking us to do. It draws equally upon our emotional self- knowledge and intellectual- it calls upon everything we are, everything we have experienced, everything we believe.

Purpose is our moral DNA. It is what we believe without having to think. It is the answer we give when we asked for the right- as opposed to the factually correct- answer.

Purpose is preparation for doing what is right and what is worthwhile. As such it creates a sense of obligation. But this obligation is not a weight or a drag in any way- it is a way of knowing what we can or cannot do. Because purpose not only provides certainty, it also provides confidence. Purpose is what drives leaders. And purpose in reviving our stricken airline will be a fitting epithet for MH 370 and MH17.

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