Updated: November 6, 2010 21:25 IST

Purpose is energy plus direction

D. Murali
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Of the ‘seven functions’ that John Adair lists in ‘Strategic Leadership’ (, ‘giving direction’ is the foremost. The other six are: strategic thinking and planning, making it happen, relating the parts to the whole, building partnerships, releasing the corporate spirit, and developing today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

Components of direction

To give direction, leaders have to be clear about purpose, values and vision, the author explains. While ‘values’ are about the moral direction that an organisation needs to be moving in, ‘vision’ is ‘the art of seeing things invisible,’ as poet Jonathan Swift instructs.

As humans we have this extraordinary and unique facility to consider actions or events not yet in existence, Adair reminds. He adds that where an organisation or a team, a nation or a community, has a common vision of its future being – the desired state or condition it holds up before itself even in the dark days – it will also have as a by-product a sense of direction. “It will know the difference between moving in one direction rather than another, between progress and regress. Where there is a vision in this sense you do not have to drive people forwards: the music of the vision draws them in a certain direction.”

Lesson that Alexander learnt

It is in ‘purpose,’ however, that the author sees ‘the overarching, general or integrating task of the group or organisation,’ which then is broken down into aims and objectives. Citing the anecdote of how Aristotle taught his pupil, the future Alexander the Great, the simple lesson of how to take a general intention and turn it into a specific objective, Adair advises leaders to cultivate this skill of quarrying objectives out of aims, and then cutting steps into the objectives so that the objectives can be achieved.

The reverse process – that is, relating the particular to the general – is equally important, he observes. “Leaders tend naturally to give the reason why something has to be done; bosses just tell you to do it. Answering the question ‘why’ means connecting it in the group’s mind with the larger ongoing aims or purposes.”

Shared sense of purpose

Elsewhere in the book, where the author discusses ‘the eight hallmarks of a high-performance team,’ what figures as number two is ‘shared sense of purpose,’ ahead of ‘best use of resources,’ ‘communication’ and so on. ‘Shared’ does not mean that the team can recite the mission statement in unison, he clarifies. “Purpose here is energy plus direction – what engineers call a vector. It should animate and invigorate the whole team. All share a sense of ownership and responsibility for team success.”

Talking about teams, it may be of interest to know from a chapter on ‘releasing the corporate spirit’ in the book, that ‘asabiyah,’ an Arabic word, encompasses ‘group cohesiveness, esprit de corps, ethos, morale, confidence, discipline – everything that makes a group a whole that is more than the sum of its parts with an identity of its own.’

Another evocative word, according to Adair, is ‘way,’ because leadership is about showing the way, the path, or road ahead. In a section titled ‘the force of purpose,’ he speaks of how ‘way,’ as a nautical term, implies the power that is moving a ship forward. “To lose way, on the other hand, is to lose momentum when sailing; to ‘gather way’ is to pick up speed again. We talk of a project as being ‘now well under way.’”

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