In the next of our Leading with Meaning and Purpose blog series, TPC Leadership Partners Andrew McDowell and Hilary Harvey are discussing relational leadership and how leaders can inspire meaning and purpose in others.

Two of the greatest assets in a leader’s toolkit are their ability to lead towards a purpose, and their capacity to help people extract meaning. When harnessed, they become the backbone of resilience in the face of troubling times, the inspiration for the courage needed when uncertainty is ahead, and the power to stay on course to impact something greater than ourselves. 

An essential part of leadership is inviting others into this dynamic. “Relational leadership,” says Andrew McDowell, a TPC Partner, “is about leading others towards a sense of purpose in a way that enables them to generate meaning from what they are doing.’”

Leadership is layered. Each tier of influence affects another. Before we leap ahead into relational dynamics, it’s worth remembering that the main obstacle to doing relational leadership well is personal leadership. You can only lead others as well as you lead yourself. But once you’re on track, how do you help others to get it?

Multiplying meaning

Helping people catch hold of meaning is a skill leaders need to develop. There are leaders who are strengths orientated, appreciative, good at developing emotional intelligence yet who still struggle to connect others to a sense of meaning and purpose.

“A lot of people struggle to create buy-in to the purpose,” says Andrew. “It’s not just about telling people when they are succeeding. We also need to support people to make meaning when things are not going so well, when targets are not reached, when the future is uncertain. Our need for meaning isn’t satisfied by impressing a superior or stakeholder, but by feeling part of something greater”.

If an organisation has an obvious benefit to the world, the leaders can harbour an assumption that says ‘we all know that’s why we’re here.’  But the day-to-day meaning in what people are doing can get lost. The vision may be clear, but it can feel distant, or worse, irrelevant to an individual’s or team’s immediate situation.

Everyday purpose

We work extensively with international humanitarian organisations and health services, where leaders are strongly influenced by a sense of making a difference. The bigger purpose might seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget to make the conscious connection between the greater vision and everyday decisions that we draw on to create meaning.

There is great skill in translating a big vision into daily activities that help people to make meaning of their roles and the part they play. Leaders need to hold the concept of seeing the purpose from the perspective of the person in the organisation that they are trying to lead towards it. To help them make it part of their everyday, help them see what they do as meaningfully contributing to it.

Keeping people connected

“If you lead towards a purpose, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to turn out,” says Andrew. “There’s uncertainty. It’s an adventure. You need courage and resilience, so you can make sense of what’s happening”.

“Meaning and purpose is what keeps people together when things fall apart.” It is what drives people to act outside of the status quo. “More than any carrot or stick, a sense of meaning and purpose inspires better work”. Which is why we need to make it our mission to multiply meaning in others – to remind them of our destination and to highlight how the most mundane of tasks is taking us there.

“When we inspire meaning and purpose in others, the benefits are felt everywhere. People both let go of the need to be right – and paradoxically – become more willing to disagree, to shape the course of where we are going – because the direction matters to them”.

People start interpreting difficulty differently. They no longer see themselves as an island battered by waves, but as part of a ship that is cutting through turbulent waters. They begin to accept constructive feedback and to initiate the awkward and necessary conversations. It’s personal, it matters to them, and it’s less about impressing others. They’ve caught the prevailing wind – and they know they want to go where it’s blowing.

For more information, or to discuss your own development, please get in touch.