​Goals vs Purpose

Leading through uncharted waters calls for asking the right questions and activating 5 critical “E’s” for impact.

by Paul Dupuis and Marshall Goldsmith

In mid-2019 the World Bank announced that 2020 was shaping up to be a year of robust economic growth around the globe. Good news for leaders!

In fact, most organizations had planned for this landmark moment for years, under bold and clever themes like, “Vision 2020”, and “Version”.

The mood was positive across borders and industries. 

The wind was at our backs…and then our world was turned upside down.

The COVID pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for leaders.

But in some ways, the core elements of this experience are also familiar; Fear, ambiguity, adversity, doubt – seasoned leaders have all experienced these moments at one point in their journey as leaders.

And out of this, many have come to identify the important triggers which are crucial to help teams navigate through the choppy waters. 

At the top of this list is “purpose”.

In times of crisis, the need for a compelling purpose becomes more important than ever.

It’s become increasingly clear that exceptional leadership is rooted in the notion of the “why”, the reason the organization exists.

In times of adversity, purpose takes a front seat, ahead of the goals, targets and outcomes. In other words, the “why” outweighs the “what” .

On the surface, the words “purpose” and “goal” appear to be very similar. But when we lift up the layers we discover that they’re quite different. Goals are the specific objectives we strive to achieve, usually within well-defined timelines and resources. They are typically rooted in logic, focused on what we aim to achieve. For example, an HR Manager’s goals could be the measurable targets set regarding the recruitment, retention, development and career progression of employees. All of these are measurable and the metrics result in an outcome, focused on ‘what’ we want to achieve.

On the other hand, purpose is abstract and sometimes difficult to measure. It’s the “why” behind our goals. Purpose is not about achieving an objective – it is more of a way of life. Purpose is rooted in emotion, it’s enduring, and firm. The most effective leaders know well that while goals can be tweaked, adjusted and at times the need to pivot on the “what” arises. But when it comes to purpose, there is no compromise on the “why”.

Purpose is the north star which guides the organization forward in good times and bad, and a powerful purpose has the potential to bring about meaningful impact. 

During the strategic planning cycle, when leaders gather together to craft a plan for the future, the discussion should begin with ‘purpose’. A good starting point is to ask the question “Why do we exist?”.

The sales people in the room will probably say that the organization exists to grow revenue and profit, to take the leading position vs competitors. On the other hand, the risk and audit team may say that the organization exists to set the standard for compliance and doing the right thing.

But these answers reflect a micro-level view, and sometimes this is where silos are born. 

When asking the key questions, start at the macro level and work towards each individual team member. Have the team members ask:

–        Why do we exist as an organization?

–       Why does our team exist? (line of business, enabling function, leadership team, etc…)

–       Why do I exist in my role?

Don’t underestimate the power of these fundamental questions. In fact, most leaders have a difficult time trying to define their purpose, and many will default to reciting the mission, vision and core values of the organization. By the way, that’s not a bad starting point, but game-changing leaders aren’t satisfied with simply repeating the corporate message hanging on the wall.

At this initial stage, it’s less about the answers, and more about the process of asking important questions. Asking “why” signifies the first important step on the journey, to seek out the powerful purpose, and to encourage others to do the same. When this happens, healthy habits are created. And as we know, healthy habits create healthy outcomes

Building healthy habits: Daily Questions

Leadership isn’t static, it’s not one belief or action. In fact, leadership is a combination of muscles, built up through years of experience and hard work. To become a game-changing leader, it takes serious effort, focus and a commitment to build the right muscles, and to use those muscles for impact.

Here’s a way to help build the important muscles required to lead teams through ambiguity and into the day after tomorrow.

You could call this exercise “Finding the True North”.  Begin by asking some important questions for each of these key elements of leadership:  Clarity, Progress, Happiness, Meaning, Positive Relationships and Engagement.

  1. Clarity: Setting goals which are simple, clear & easy to understand.

     -Leaders need to have clarity on what’s important now, and set goals accordingly. Clarity of purpose and direction brings impact.

Question: Did I do my best today to set goals?

  1. Progress: Move forward towards the north star

     –”A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. This Chinese proverb emphasizes the importance of incremental progress.

– Seek excellence, not perfection

– track it, measure it, celebrate it

– Learn when to fold and when to hold

Question: Did I do my best today to make progress?

  1. Happiness: Enjoying the process

Everyone wants to be happy. Great leaders create an environment where people can shine. And when people shine, they are happy.

Question: Did I do my best today to be happy?

  1. Meaning: Significance & relevance.

     -work that has meaning is important to our sense of well being. We want to feel that we are making a real difference in the world.

Question: Did I do my best today to find meaning?

  1. Positive Relationships: Love, care & share

     -Great leaders work hard to build strong, enduring relationships. And these relationships serve us well in good times and bad.

Question: Did I do my best today to build positive relationships?

  1. Engagement: Mental & emotional connect

     -Loving what you do, being “all in”, focused, in the moment. Being mindful.

Question: Did I do my best today to be engaged?

To put these important questions to work, here’s an exercise to try with your team; Create small groups of 4-6 leaders representing various levels and parts of the organization, even better if these are leaders who typically don’t interact with each other. And have them share their answers to the 6 questions listed above. Encourage them to ask one another:

–       on a scale of 1-10, how would you rank yourself on each of these questions?

–       which question(s) is most challenging for you as a leader?

–       which question(s) comes naturally or you find easy as a leader?

It’s likely that you’ll find that most leaders haven’t asked themselves these important questions, and the discussions that this exercise prompts can lead to important discoveries — even better, the questions should prompt awareness followed by actions.  Ask for commitment from the leaders to try asking themselves each of these daily questions every day for 30 days straight. You’ll be amazed at the impact this can have for those leaders who give it a try.

The E5 — Activating the movement

We began by asking the pivotal question, “why?”. in the process activating the first “E” of a set of leadership gears which we call, the E5 movement. 


The process of creating a vision is as important as the vision itself. Leaders should co-create a vision with their own key leaders, which is rooted in the ‘why’, the greater purpose of the organization. It should describe what the world would look like when the vision comes to life. It’s not solely about the outcomes, or the ‘what’. Crafting a compelling vision which touches the hearts and the minds, which focuses on purpose and impact, takes time. As the starting point to activate the E5 movement it’s also the most critical. Be careful not to cut corners at this critical stage of the journey, and


Leaders need to express their vision to the team in a way which is easy to understand, digestible and relevant. Doing this effectively requires a plan. Here are a few tips;

  1. Know your audience, their interests and motivations, and then push their buttons
  2. Choose language which is relevant
  3. Use omni-channel communication, variety in the mediums used to communicate the message
  4. Appeal to both the hearts (“why”) and the minds (“what”)
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat (& repeat again!)

A compelling vision, with a robust communication plan inevitably leads to a buzz in the organization. This is a moment of truth, and the leader knows the importance of striking when the fire is hot!


When a compelling vision is crafted and shared with the team in a way that generates interest and a desire to be part of it, the 3rd “E” is triggered – “Excite”. This is when the team members start to lean in and say things like, “When can we start?”, and “I have an idea”.

A strong purpose, backed by a powerful vision, communicated with conviction, activating the strong inner urge to learn and grow, becomes an unstoppable force to reckon with.

And it leads to the 4th “E”, “Enable”.


The team has digested the vision, embraced it excitement is building about bringing it to life. Diverse teams have been formed, and they’re ready for action. This is a critical turning point, especially true for leaders who reached their current role by being good at doing. Becoming a leader as an enabler can be an extremely challenging moment. The enabler needs to resist the urge to do, instead he/she should create an environment where the team has the freedom to move, to experiment, to try, to learn, and try again. Dan Cable calls this giving “freedom within the frame”**. Sometimes, enabling simply means the leader needs to get out of the way and let the team go!

Driven by a clear purpose, supported by a team of talented seekers, the enabling leader guides from the side, helping the team members to build their own muscles.

 And as the wheels pick up momentum, we reach the final ‘E’ and as all leaders know well, it’s the moment of truth.


The 5th “E’ of the E5, “Execute” As the saying goes, a vision without action is just a daydream. This is where the Leader leverages the hard work in the first 4 E’s to create a movement, and to bring the vision to reality.

Execution is not simply about just doing it. Experienced leaders know that solid execution requires relentless focus and persistence, especially during those days when the progress just isn’t there. At the execution stage, courage and resilience are also required. The team members who started off eager, with the will, skill and the right values, can lose their momentum. And sometimes that means the need for a change in how the team is being enabled, or perhaps a change in the team itself.

On the other hand, the execution stage brings incremental progress. This is a time for recognition, celebration of the small wins. It’s this encouragement which reinforces the vision and keeps the momentum strong.

Effective leaders know that leadership is made up of essentially a series of individual muscles. Building these muscles requires hard work, focus, and commitment. Like Arnold Shwarzenegger said it well, “you don’t put on muscle by simply walking into the gym, you have to do the work”. To become a leader of impact you have to do the work. When these muscles strengthen, and come together, with just the right balance, they set the leader and the team up for high performance.

In addition to the 5 E’s, here are a few leadership muscles which are especially useful in times of crisis and beyond;

Pragmatic Optimism: 

First the pragmatic part. Leaders need to face reality and confront the facts, no matter how tough they are. It’s important to be honest with the team, especially when the waters are choppy.

The second part is Optimism. Leaders should reassure the team that, “while we may be in the middle of a storm today, we will get through this, and sunny days will follow”.


The ability to bounce back. The grit that keeps you going through the tough times. Great leaders always bounce back, no matter what.


The discipline to stay focused, understanding that the path to impact and greatness is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires the leader to set an example of a healthy cadence, and to protect that cadence at all costs.


Leaders who make an impact know that exceptional leadership begins with exceptional behaviour. Asking important questions every day leads to positive behaviours and outcomes;

6 Daily Questions:

  1. Did I do my best to set clear goals today?
  2. Did I do my best to make progress towards achieving my goals today?
  3. Did I do my best to be happy today?
  4. Did I do my best to find meaning today?
  5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
  6. Did I do my best to be engaged today?

The E5 Movement:

Leaders who are committed to their craft know that it takes hard work. It begins with focus and hard work on building the muscles required to lead people to achieve great things:

  1. Envision
  2. Express
  3. Excite
  4. Enable
  5. Execute

Starting each day with a compelling purpose, asking healthy questions which prompt positive activity, combined with building the muscles for each of the 5 E’s is a powerful formula to lead in good times and bad.