Leading from purpose in challenging times

Thriving vs just surviving.


"Look, I realized I didn’t have any promises of stock options, bonuses, or promotions to help us anymore. All the external motivators I had depended on in the past were gone. The economic chaos we had all worried about was now at my dinner table. The only thing I could stand on was my purpose as a leader. So, I told my team that I don’t have anything to give them this time except for what I stand for, and my purpose is and always has been to be the white-water raft guide who gets you safely to the other side. If you don’t want to do this I will understand, but if you stay we will go through the most challenging twelve months ever and I make no promises on the end game."

Senior Executive’s reflections on Leading in 2008

The economic and health crisis that surpasses 2008’s great recession has arrived in ways we never could have dreamed it would. Leading us to a crucial question: Will you thrive or just survive? In the example above, the leader turned around his business and became an example of how to thrive in extraordinary circumstances.

I work with senior leaders around the globe to help them step fully into leading from their Purpose. Here is what I have learned working with broadly diverse organizations ranging from the crew at Ben & Jerry’s to the faculty at West Point Military Academy, many of whom had multiple tours of duty across the Middle East: Purpose is the ultimate antidote to uncertainty.

Why do I say that? Take a minute and think about what your life, concerns, hopes and fears, and plans were in early February of 2020. Now, think about what it looks like today. It is hard to believe that in such a short timeframe everything that was certain around us has become uncertain. One of the few things that hasn’t changed and won’t is your Purpose. It will always be the solid ground you stand on. None of us chose the current reality any more than we choose where we were born, or the world we faced growing up. What we can choose is how we relate to it.

We are all feeling more stressed these days, and even as relates to stress, we have a choice as to how we experience it. The research on how world class athletes deal with stress shows that we have two options: we either succumb to the downward fight or flight reactions (panic, fear etc.) or we step into a powerful challenge response (focus, clarity, and impact). What allows us to operate from the powerful challenge response is remembering your why, your Purpose, and key life experiences where you pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. The challenge response was what we all witnessed in the 2017 Super Bowl, when the New England Patriots were losing 28 to 3 against the Atlanta Falcons and proceeded to come back and win the game in overtime with the final score of 28 to 34.

So, how do you access the challenge response as the score really is 28 to 3 for all of us?

As it turns out most of us already have and just need to be reminded. For Lauren Mc Lane, a senior leader we recently worked with, her moment came at the age of 13. “All my dreams came to a halt in April 1996 when I was diagnosed with aggressive curvature of the spine which required immediate surgery. My doctor explained the ten-hour procedure, two-week hospital stay, and six-months-plus recovery. My spine would be fused with a bone graft (from my ribs). Metal rods, attached to my spine with screws, would be used to hold the spine in place while the fusion happened. The doctor explained the risks (infection, paralysis, blood clots, complications from blood transfusions) and the recovery limitations of no driving, no swimming, no bike riding, no beach, and no cheerleading. As someone who had never broken a bone or even had stitches, I was scared. My parents were scared. My mom, a nurse and the rock of the family, was in a fit of tears.

Screen Shot 2020 06 02 At 7 12 11 AMYet, I made a vow to not let this crisis define me. I would find a way to go to the beach that summer, I would start high school on time, and I would be on the high school cheerleading team. Fast forward to my senior year (one fused spine, very large scar, and 3 titanium rods later). I was co-captain of the cheerleading team and we won first place at the annual competition. I also won a personal award/scholarship and received the prestigious title of Scholar Athlete at my school’s annual sports dinner. My purpose statement is: To be a professional cheerleader, even in a stadium full of silence.”

“Even though my cheerleading days are long over, I have the attitude and spirit that are built into the role: positive, enthusiastic, energetic, supportive, eager, resilient, encouraging, compassionate, determined. Whether it’s running the New York City marathon (despite having zero experience), moving to Europe for a new job (despite having only lived in the U.S.), or managing a big team in today’s challenging environment, my attitude continues to be ‘Yes we can!’ The phrase in my purpose statement in a stadium full of silence is a reminder to myself that sometimes it’s not so obvious or clear when someone is in need of their own personal cheerleader, so look for those who are in need of some positivity and encouragement. Whether you are my family, friend, colleague, or neighbor, you are a part of my team and can always count on me to help you to get that win.” says Mc Lane.

For Lauren, what she did when she was 13 reminds her of the deeper Purpose that has always been there and is also a beautiful example of the challenge response we all need to find these days. Nothing I share with you will negate the health or financial implications of the Coronavirus. What is within your control is how you act in this time. The opportunity is for this to be your finest hour. Few things in our life will be remembered more clearly than what we do and how we show up in these days and months.

So, what is purpose really?

One common thread has emerged as the essence of what defines purpose. I have come to sum it up as “Your purpose is the unique gift that you bring to the world.” You will have many jobs and causes you care about over the course of your life, but you have only one Purpose that expresses itself across every aspect of your life. It will show up differently when you are working with your peers versus with your parents, but the essence of the unique gift you bring to any given situation is your signature. Unlike your performance goals or career plans, your Purpose has been with you since you were a kid, and it will be the same when you are 102 years old.

Imagine that we replaced you with someone just as skilled, smart and knowledgeable as you. Then, three months later, we ask those you worked with what they miss most. Their answer would be a key to your Purpose: it’s what you bring to the table that disappears when you aren’t there. Your Purpose isn’t what you do, but defines the unique how and why you do it. Purpose gives each of us a unique lens through which we see the world; when we look through our lens, we see possibilities no one else can see. Innovation comes from seeing through our unique lens, not copying someone else’s vision. Impact comes from expressing our Purpose in the world around us. In fact, once we start leading from our Purpose, we can’t help but express it even when doing something else would be much more convenient!

Accessing the challenge response and purpose

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I want to give you a simple way to access what I have been sharing with you. Just like Lauren, I bet you have a good set of stories from your life that are your version of thriving versus just surviving. Think of a time when you were in a truly difficult situation that caused you to step up and be at your best. Share that story with someone. Then reflect on what you are facing today and what you can leverage from the story you just told. Chances are you will see a path to how you can lead in this moment that you didn’t moments before. That shift is what the challenge response feels like and is most likely a great example of you leading from your purpose.

Learn more about Nick Craig and his book, Leading from Purpose, here.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and/or person interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of Silicon Valley Bank, a division of First-Citizens Bank and First Citizens BancShares, Inc. The materials on this website are for informational purposes only, are subject to change and do not take into account your particular investment objective, financial situation or need. Since each client’s situation is unique, you should consult your financial advisor and/or tax planning professional before acting on any information provided herein.