The Power of the Right Question: Purpose and Character
Wisdom is distinctive – if we are wise enough to see it. When Cardinal Basil Hume was a young Benedictine monk his monastery had to elect a new abbot. There were three candidates – one known as a scholar, another as a deeply prayerful man. The third was neither, but he was shrewd. Basil Hume told me how the community found it difficult to decide, until an old monk stood up and said of the potential leader: “If he is a scholar let him teach us, if he is holy let him pray for us, but if he is wise let him lead us.”
Wisdom is not the same as intelligence or competence, being responsible or, even, spiritual – though all these can be important ingredients. In essence, it is the capacity to judge well, in relation to both people and situations. And this quality of good judgement is increasingly needed in businesses navigating a fast-changing, complex and volatile world beset by profound uncertainty and lacking shared clarity in addressing the systemic social and environmental issues we all face.
The past decade is notable for a remarkable shift in how businesses understand their role in society. That shift is not uncontested, as debates about ‘woke’ capitalism illustrate. But it is nonetheless real: the assumption that businesses exist simply to make money for shareholders is yielding to a more complex and realistic understanding that they exist also to benefit society. One word – ‘purpose’ – has come to embody this shift.
Businesses did have purposes before. But because they were typically the same – to maximise profits – and because they were rarely challenged, this common purpose became a truism, taken for granted. The word ‘purpose’ acquired its new potency as it came to embody a searching question that was troubling more and more people: what is the point of this business beyond just making money?
That question is not going away any time soon as societal expectations of businesses continue to rise. It’s no longer enough to have corporate social responsibility programmes alongside a core business model that is narrowly focused on profits. The demands of younger employees, consumers, investors and regulators all converge to raise the stakes.
“What kind of person do you need to be, or become, to run a purpose-led business effectively?”
They want to know what really inspires the company and its leaders, if the goods it produces are truly good, if its services truly serve, and how it creates value. They also want to know how the business thinks about people and what motivates them, as well as how it understands its role in addressing social and environmental issues – whether it is a genuine agent of change towards a more sustainable future, or perpetuating an unstable status quo.
As companies embark on becoming purpose-led they realise that their leadership demands are changing too. This raises a second, searching question: what kind of person do you need to be, or become, to run a purpose-led business effectively?
Part of the answer is another word, which I think may well become a placeholder for this second question over the next decade. That word is ‘character’ – as the wise monks in Cardinal Hume’s abbey understood.
Just as our understanding of business purpose continues to be enriched through the development of business practice and academic study, so the word ‘character’ is not so much a fully formed answer but a signpost to a terrain that demands exploration. And, as with ‘purpose’, it’s not an entirely new concept.
Committing to becoming purpose-led creates a profound change in the fundamental objective of the firm, which is no longer to maximise profit, but to create value for society and our habitat. But to achieve that transformation, in turn something profound must change within what leaders must be and do.
Of course leaders still need to be highly competent at core business skills. But the first requirement now becomes to act consistently in a way that is true to the purpose of the business and its identity as a human system – while delivering and sustaining financial returns.
To do this well involves internalising and believing in the value of the purpose and the vital importance of relationships founded on care and respect, as well as ensuring that the purpose shapes strategy and drives decision-making in an effective, entrepreneurial way. Relying on extrinsic factors alone such as financial rewards cannot deliver this.
“The word ‘character’ is not so much a fully formed answer but a signpost to a terrain that demands exploration.”
Such a leader has to inhabit a way of thinking – a de-centring of both the business and the self – so that routine conversations and actions constantly reinforce a human-centred approach in service of the purpose. They must also cultivate a shared commitment and strong relationships among teams, thereby delivering for customers and other stakeholders. In other words, they must develop and display the attributes of character that underpin the true pursuit of the purpose.
To do this they must reflect on their personal purpose or meaning in life, and find a way in which it is sufficiently attuned to their role in the business to become a source of energy and personal commitment. Meanwhile they must create space for colleagues who may have different motivations but find common cause in pursuing the collective purpose.
Purpose-led business leaders also have to make balanced decisions, often without possession of all the facts, in conditions of uncertainty and complexity. These shifting sands are often exacerbated by rapid and radical technological change (such as artificial intelligence) and other developments, including the environmental challenges we all face.
“Such a leader has to inhabit a way of thinking – a de-centring of both the business and the self – so that routine conversations and actions constantly reinforce a human-centred approach in service of the purpose.”
The character trait that becomes most vital here is wisdom. Wise leaders are shrewd judges of people and situations, able to stand back from their instinctive responses. They are willing to take risks but clear-eyed about wider consequences and the long term, anticipating what might happen, while remaining attentive listeners who care for others and are committed to seeking the broader common good. They need the courage to stick to their course but also the wisdom to know when to reef their sails or even change direction.
Many articles listing desirable leadership qualities cite a number of these characteristics, but tend to suggest that it is a series of skills and techniques that can be acquired without a deeper reflection of inner motivation and desire. But what leaders believe and what they are seeking to achieve personally is highly relevant.
What are the most important qualities of character?
Reflecting on my work in collaborating with a team to create the framework and principles of A Blueprint for Better Business ten years ago – which itself drew on a depth of thought in wisdom traditions and virtue ethics, alongside insights from empirical sciences – I tentatively offer three qualities: wise judgement, the desire to serve a broader common good, and a commitment to relationships founded on care and respect for the dignity of others.
Other things matter too, but I suggest these three are all foundational to effectively leading a purpose-led business. The outcome of these character qualities is an environment where all can thrive in pursuit of a common good, rather than subservience to a ‘big character’ charismatic leader. Indeed a sign of such an environment is the encouragement of challenge to leadership in pursuit of alignment to purpose in new and thoughtful ways.
What is wise judgement? I spent 11 years working as a public affairs assistant for an extraordinary man who I thought was genuinely wise. Cardinal Hume was an amazing listener and would give the person in front of him his whole attention. When a difficult issue arose, he would never rush. He would explore the matter – is there another side to the issue? What is really at stake? What don’t we know that we need to find out? On what basis should he be involved at all? He would usually go for a walk and sit with the question for a day or so. Time and again what I saw him do was to discern, through this process of reflection, what was really at the heart of the matter. He would then come to a dispassionate view which was simultaneously infused with his world-view that love was at the heart of all things.
How you become a wise person, I don’t have the answer to. Hume had made his share of mistakes in his previous role as abbot of a monastery and had a sense of deep humility from knowing failure. But I think part of it has to be the development of self-awareness, a shedding of naivety with a clear-eyed understanding of the vagaries of human nature, while remaining attuned to what is of real significance through deep attention and connection to the world and others.
“High-performing teams rise by awakening a passion for what they could only dream of.”
The second aspect is a desire to serve a broader common good. There are two aspects to this. One is the refusal to think too narrowly or in silos, recognising that business is always a part of society and not apart from it; asking what we are in service of, and how we can use our agency for good. The second is to think in terms of desire, not just responsibility.
Being responsible and ethical are, of course, both necessary. But they are not sufficient. Appeals to ‘responsibility’ often fail to excite and motivate. “Be more responsible” is not what football coaches usually shout from the sidelines. If we believe that human beings are fundamentally relational with a deep desire to find fulfilment through activity that genuinely realises their potential in service of a worthwhile goal, then we can have confidence in focusing on the pursuit of excellence – on desire rather than on duty.
“What do you really want to achieve?” is a great interview question as it discloses an individual’s deeper desires. Ethics and responsibility are vital, of course, if people’s dignity is to be respected. But beyond that, high-performing teams rise by awakening a passion for what they could only dream of.
Care and respect
The third aspect I single out is a commitment to relationships founded on care and respect for the dignity of others. The framework for A Blueprint for Better Business proposes that our mindset about purpose and people shapes how we show up. It offers five behaviours that evolve within a business when there is a worthwhile purpose and when relationships are founded on care and respect. As the framework states, they are the “behaviours needed to build character and achieve purpose.” In Blueprint’s view, the development of these character traits is in service of living the purpose and the purpose is only brought to life by the character traits. This is not just about leadership behaviour, but the culture created over time by how people throughout the business come to routinely behave.
What this brings out – which is core to the tradition of virtue ethics – is the idea that we all develop our character through life, through forming settled dispositions to act in habitual ways. We each become what we habitually do.
“This is not just about leadership behaviour, but the culture created over time by how people throughout the business come to routinely behave.”
In the searingly honest Faith, Hope and Carnage, the musician Nick Cave describes his own journey: “At my most functional I bring out the good in people, but sadly we don’t always behave at our best. I think I wasn’t at my best back then, but I’m older and wiser now. I spend more time hanging out at the better end of my character. I hope so. But in those days there was a fair amount of carnage, a fair amount of blood on the floor. I don’t feel so good about that […] We all change, you know. I have. I hope. I don’t visit that brutal end of my nature quite so often any more.”
This is important as we can tend to think of ‘character’ as something immutable when in fact it is constantly being formed – or deformed – by how we choose to live.
“At my most functional I bring out the good in people, but sadly we don’t always behave at our best.”Nick Cave
So these three aspects of leadership character – wise judgement, a desire to serve a broader common good, and a commitment to relationships founded on respect for the dignity of others – all combine to help form and sustain a purpose-led business. As one CEO described it to me, when these aspects of character formation become infused within the whole business, each person feels they are “a valued member of a winning team on a worthwhile mission.”
A winning team is of course still key in a market economy. Seeing purpose-led leadership as the development of character in service of a worthwhile goal taps into the human desire to succeed and excel. An area where this phenomenon is readily apparent is sport. Discussions about top football teams and top managers, for example, frequently refer to the character of individual players and of the team, and the way exceptional managers can galvanise and unify a team in search of excellence, and inculcate grit and resilience especially when things are not going well. Importantly, these traits are then a source of the energy, creativity and innovation led by the team itself on the pitch, rather than the players always looking to the sidelines for the coach’s instructions.
The need for leadership character as well as competence will become ever more pressing, because purpose and character are interdependent. I witnessed this recently at a company with new leadership that has a strong sense of values and is rethinking its purpose. Talking with one of the executive committee members about the strategy and direction, they said of the new CEO: “They have just the character this business needs now.”
“It is the community that matters.”Cardinal Hume
Something that happens over time with such leadership character is a de-centering at two levels. First, a purpose-led approach de-centres the business, so it is not at the centre of its own thinking, but focused on how it can best serve the society on which its prosperity depends. And second, a leader of such a business will also seek to de-centre the self, so they enable others to thrive and grow in service of a shared worthwhile purpose.
The character attributes of leadership then become widely distributed within the organisation, not confined to or focused on any one individual leader.
In a monastery, the leadership of the abbot has just this double function. And as Cardinal Hume also observed: “On the whole, monks do not become famous, and that is a good thing, but monasteries do – and that is an excellent thing. In other words, it is the community that matters.”