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Breathing Life and Vitality into Work with Purpose

Purpose: Why do we do what we do? Who is it for?

In the middle of everything, we can lose sight of it. Naomi Ward wants us to go back and reassess our purpose.

Purpose Naomi Ward

If you are a school leader, how often do you ask your colleagues:

  1. What is your purpose?
  2. What makes you come alive?
  3. What do you care about most?
  4. What does it look like for you to live your purpose at work?
  5. What is the difference you are uniquely placed to make in our school and community?
  6. How can I support you?

By the end of this article, my intention is that you are persuaded to make these questions a habit.

Why is individual purpose important?
We know that purpose is important for health and wellbeing; we also know that people who feel aligned with their purpose at work are more engaged, committed, productive and likely to outperform their peers. 

Sir John Whitmore, in ‘Coaching for Performance,’ cites that we are likely to be working at an average of 40% of our capacity. A Gallup poll from February 2021 found that 64% of employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged from their work. While this is not data from the education sector, I imagine there’s some overlap.

Giving individuals time and space to articulate and then take action from their purpose, is a proven way of increasing engagement and capacity. In a year when we have been forced to remember what matters most, now is a good time to pause and get clear on how we can collectively find greater fulfilment and meaning in service of ourselves and our communities.

What is purpose?
Purpose is an expression of our true capacity and the impact that we are uniquely placed to have. 

Your purpose is present in those moments when you are in flow: your body, mind, emotional life and spirit are aligned; you are inhabiting your gifts. While you might have ad hoc experiences of this state, what if the conditions were such, that you inhabited this way of being every day? And what if this capacity was multiplied many times over across a working culture?

When I ask teachers, what is your purpose? They often respond, ‘to make a difference.’ When I ask, but what exactly is the difference you make? And who are you being to have that impact? It gets harder to respond and as a result, harder to express through action.

Compare, ‘I want to make a difference’ with this purpose statement from history teacher Danni Almond:
‘I am the champion who emboldens young people to be mindful of themselves and others.’

Or Lee Debagia, a Principal:
I am your guide, for your journey, your climb.

The painted vision on your heart will set the pathway for your mind.

In both of these statements, you can hear their unique gifts, the quality of their leadership, and their unique impact. With this self-awareness and emotional connection to what they care about most, Danni and Lee are more likely to take courageous action, and to be resilient when the going gets tough. 

What gets in the way of a clearly defined sense of purpose?
Perhaps we make assumptions that people are fulfilled – they seem happy. Or do we create the story that there’s no time in schools for these conversations. Perhaps there is some fear: what if their purpose is nothing to do with the school? Or to bring it back to you as a leader: if you don’t know your purpose anymore, how can you support others to find theirs?

However, if this lack of clarity around purpose resonates, you are not alone. In their work training thousands of managers across public and private sector organisations, The Authentic Leadership Institute found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of individual purpose. 

This report goes on to share the belief that, ‘the process of articulating your purpose and finding the courage to live it is the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader.’

Having worked with dozens of educators who have felt their sense of self and leadership restored through connecting back to their core purpose, I wholeheartedly agree. 
What can you do now?

  • What is your purpose?

Work with a coach or community to get crystal clear on your purpose. What do you care about? What are your gifts? What holds you back? Who are you at your best? What is the impact you are called to have? Then create a statement that you can commit to, knowing that there is space for it to evolve. 

  • What is the purpose of the organisation?

While we make assumptions about the purpose of a school, again each organisation has its own fingerprint and purpose. Clearly articulating this will enable you to understand how individual purpose can align with the overarching purpose of the organisation.

  • Ask better questions

Go back to the questions at the beginning of this article, ask them, hold the space and listen. Have regular, honest check-ins where you revisit how connected to purpose your colleagues are feeling.

  • Let go

Allow your colleagues to create and innovate from their purpose. Going back to Danni, her purpose and superpower was to ‘embolden young people to be mindful,’ so she began a whole school mindfulness programme to reduce stress for exam students. Without doubt, you will be surprised at the innovation and creativity that is unlocked by this renewed clarity. But it will take trust and letting go.

What is at stake?
In a year where there has been enormous loss, loss that we are still counting, it is a worthwhile task to remember what is important. If we continue on, benighted by busyness and ‘the way we do things’, we lose touch with our hearts and our souls. In the words of the poet David Whyte:
‘Rather than breathing life and vitality into work from the greater perspective that is our birthright, we allow our dreams and desires to be constricted and replaced by those of the organisation and then wonder why it has such a stranglehold on our lives.’

Seize this opportunity to fall back in love with your profession and invite others to do the same. You are breathing life and vitality into your working culture, and you will be astonished as you take a step back and see what is revived. 

Enrol on our Purposeful Leadership Programme starting on June 9th here

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte, Currency Doubleday 1994
Igniting Individual Purpose in Times of Crisis, HBR, August 2020
From Purpose to Impact, Craig, Snook, HBR, May 2014

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The author

As a coach working with teachers, Naomi Ward realised that loss of self and purpose is a key element in what holds educators back from being their best and committing to leadership. Naomi is determined to be part of a purpose revolution in schools across the UK and Internationally. Naomi is an ICF Accredited Co-Active Coach with 14 years experience as a Secondary School Teacher and Leader. She has edited two books about wellbeing in the education sector. In 2019, she founded Purposeful Educators, which is committed to ‘championing educators to take a stand for their unique value and purpose in order to have the impact they are longing to have.’ Purposeful Educators offers group coaching, leadership development, coaching training and consultancy for schools and membership to our growing global community.

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