The meaning of life.

Why the “why” of your business starts with the toughest of questions

For large, shareholder-led organisations, the purpose of the organisation and therefore the aims of its strategy, are simple: to provide a vehicle for investment that will generate a return. Any meaning, or “why”, for the organisation’s existence beyond that, however earnestly expressed, remains a temporary sticker that can be peeled off and replaced should the business need to evolve in the service of that primary purpose.

But in the 95% of organisations in this world that don’t fit that description, in that “Mittelstand” of closely-held, family run, or owner-managed businesses that make up the bulk of most Western economies, strategy is different. It has to be, because at its heart, success has a different, often far less defined meaning.

The strategy process itself will be less analytical and more emotional, less objective and much more personal. And that’s as it should be, because the very purpose of the organisation is personal – it is invariably and inescapably an extension of the personal drives and aims of the individuals: those who created it, and those who are in charge of its destiny today.

Which is why, for entrepreneurs, business owners and SME business leaders, the starting point of strategy is not analysis, competition, targets, or aspirations; it is purpose. And not the purpose of the business in your life, but the purpose of your life in the world.

And yes, that’s opening up a huge question. But it’s also an incredibly important one, for a whole host of reasons.

Psychologist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, famously credited a sense of purpose as the single biggest factor in determining the survival of people interred with him in the concentration camps. In his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he quotes Nietzsche: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’”.

Frankl’s writing pretty much kick-started an entire field of academic study which came to define “meaning” as a very broad, umbrella term (my grandchildren give my life meaning); versus “purpose”, as a distinct and active component of meaning (essentially a drive to make a tangible difference in the external world); versus a “calling” (deriving that meaning or purpose primarily through one’s work).

But the important thing is this: in the 70-odd years since Frankl’s book, a growing base of evidence has increasingly linked personal meaning and purpose with outcomes across health, happiness, productivity, attainment, and longevity. As psychologist Mike Drayton explained in our seminar last month, finding meaning in your work is a huge component in personal resilience, and personal resilience is one of the most important attributes of successful entrepreneurs and leaders alike.

But that same research on personal meaning has also shown that in the “finding purpose” stakes, we peak early. Measures of purpose score highest in adolescents, falling through middle age, and dropping precipitously in later adulthood, with the research suggesting that, as we age, we become increasingly uncomfortable with asking ourselves these questions. And I know this first-hand.

A year or so ago, my coach asked me to describe my calling. I had to concede that I didn’t know where to start. In fact, I struggled to understand what the question even meant. A few weeks later, after a what felt like a fairly tough process of introspection questioning what I’d been doing with my life for fifty years, I recognised that my calling (for now at least) was something that had been an increasingly satisfying and motivating theme throughout my work, certainly over the last decade: to help people achieve more together than they can individually imagine.

That recognition inspired me, not only to redefine how I work with clients, in building their vision, alignment, strategies and collective abilities to achieve; but also, to put far more effort into growing my network of leaders, forming them into active communities, and helping them to build ambitions, connections, and capabilities, to lead their own people to greater goals, with or without my involvement.

Only yesterday I read a tweet from a CEO in my community, thanking other members of a group that I’d first brought together almost a year ago, many of whom had never met before, for “another great collaborative meeting”, sharing ideas and joining their efforts around a clear common interest.

I wasn’t there, nor was I asked to be, which gave me all the more satisfaction to see one more acorn bursting through the soil, propelled now, independently, by its own energy and sense of purpose.

What is your purpose in life? What is your calling? And by extension, what is the reason for the existence of your business?

These are huge questions. But that’s precisely why it is so important you take the time to find answers to them. Because it’s only in those answers that your work, and your business, will gain genuine meaning, and from which you will gain far more than just a steady income.