Forget Passion and Focus on Purpose
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Just as the vision thing has come to dominate discussions of organizational leadership, the passion thing has come to dominate discussions of personal leadership. As one writer puts it, “Your journey to leadership success starts with figuring out what matters most to you and then doing something to advance that goal every day.” Most say, find your passion and don’t let anything else get in the way.
But identifying your passion is neither easy nor wise, especially early on. Why should we expect someone with little experience to know what he or she wants to pursue the rest of his or her life? Some do, most don't. That's a decision that requires maturity and wisdom, possibly even the wisdom of decades.
What's more, many people don't recognize their passion until they have achieved it. They go through life following many interests and opportunities, only later recognizing the central thread that holds it all together. In his well-known Stanford commencement address in 2005, Steve Jobs put it this way: “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” The Nashville Bluegrass Band is even more to the point: "When I get where I'm goin', that's when I'll know where I'm bound."
In addition, the find-your-passion advice can morph into an extremely rationalized process of personal goal setting, especially as passions are translated into specific goals and objectives. Where do I want to be in ten years? What are the steps that will get me there? What are the metrics that I can use to measure my progress? Just as you can over-rationalize the process of organizational planning and implementation, you can over-rationalize the process called "life" - which is sterile indeed without emotion, intuition, and beauty.
Finally, the word "passion" carries a somewhat whimsical, fleeting character. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and often formed without any basis in ethics or values. It’s built around an individual’s own personal (self) interest and may or may not build or contribute to the larger community. It’s just not as powerful or enduring as direction or commitment or purpose.
For this reason, I would suggest that, instead of passion, you focus on a personal sense of purpose" By that I mean: a direction based in your values, one to which you commit yourself fully and show the patience, persistence, drive, and determination to stay with – until a better path comes along. Fill in the blank: “I exist to . . . .”
As a leader, you will also be called upon to articulate an organizational sense of purpose, which, in my mind, should be defined in the same way as above: a direction based in your values, one to which you commit yourself fully . . . until a better path comes along. Fill in the blank: “Our organization exists to: . . . .”
Should your personal sense of purpose be the same as your organizational direction – and vice versa? Some say yes, because both require a value choice and your values should be consistent. Some say no, because you need a life outside work. I would merely say that the two must not be incompatible. And if they are I’d say it’s time to find a different line of work. Personal purpose and values take precedence over organizational purpose.
Similarly, purpose takes precedence over passion. That’s not to say that leaders should not be passionate. Indeed, passion in pursuit of one's purpose is a virtue (as long as that passion is not blinded by ego). For the leader, perhaps the most fitting purpose is to lead, to integrate, to focus, and to give life to the many separate and often conflicting purposes and passions that dwell in any organization or group. And that is something a good leader can and will be both purposeful and passionate about.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.