Why I Wrote This Book

I trace this book to an intellectual crisis I experienced about a decade ago. Signs of our looming environmental catastrophe as well as the suffering caused by extreme inequality were evident all around me. Skepticism about companies and the capitalist system abounded. Many of my students, who were mostly senior executives in a broad range of global companies, were wondering how they might not only drive profits and performance, but achieve meaningful social impact. I was repeatedly challenged by some who questioned whether the traditional approaches and best practices I was teaching were still relevant. And I didn’t have a credible answer.

These conversations forced me to confront my own purpose as a scholar, parent, and citizen of the world. How could I as an academic help business leaders confront the pressing issues all around us? Several years of intense self-questioning led me to reexamine the concept of purpose as a possible way forward. I had long been skeptical about purpose, dismissing it as one of those inspiring but trivial topics that leaders raise in company speeches or annual reports. The vast majority of companies seemed to deploy purpose superficially as a promotional vehicle to make themselves appear virtuous to the outside world or to rally employees. But through a series of conversations with business leaders I came to suspect that purpose might provide fresh answers to companies and leaders struggling to achieve superior performance amid unforeseen crises and disruptions.

My subsequent field research into the world’s most enlightened, purpose-driven firms bore this out. At a time when large investors were increasingly looking for performance spanning decades not quarters, I became convinced that business leaders everywhere could resist the siren’s song of a short-term, performance-at-all-costs mentality and instead create an upward spiral of performance inspired by purpose.

Leaders talk a lot about purpose, but we’ve scarcely begun to understand what the pursuit of purpose really entails and how it might enhance businesses commercially and socially. We’ve scarcely begun to interrogate our own personal and organizational purposes and to consider how we might dedicate ourselves to them more profoundly and completely.

I hope this book will inspire you to rethink purpose, developing it as a new foundation for galvanizing people around a set of goals. I hope it will inspire you to cultivate an existential awareness that unifies and guides the enterprise, energizing stakeholders and enlivening all areas of the business, including culture, strategy, brand, and operations. Ultimately, I hope it will inspire you to take more responsibility for our collective welfare, experiencing the fulfillment that comes with communicating and living a noble purpose.