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 Management Minute

What’s Your Purpose?

By Michael R. Fraser, PhD, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP

One of the things I like most about my work at AMCHP is the opportunity I have to travel across the country and share my thoughts on maternal and child health (MCH) leadership. On those trips I learn a lot about what is going on in the states and the challenges of being an MCH leader. When I have the chance to present on the topic of leadership, one of the points I make is that potentially the biggest challenge MCH leaders face is not funding, workforce or personnel challenges, nor our ability to motivate and get work accomplished. Instead, one of the biggest challenges I see is the ability to clearly articulate an MCH program’s vision and very clearly state the purpose for doing all the work you set out to do. It’s a common challenge in many settings and one, that when resolved, makes a huge difference in an organization’s productivity, morale and results.

That must be why Gary Burnison named “purpose” as his second absolute of leadership. We have all been involved in work where our purpose is clear: we knew what we were all trying to accomplish, we bought into the vision of the work, we could articulate why the work was important. When unified in purpose a team can accomplish great things – it’s a wonderful feeling! But how often do we feel confused about our work, wondering how the pieces fit together or why we are doing a specific task instead of another? This time of year that feeling might be particularly acute: without an overall vision for your program’s MCH block grant application the pieces might feel a bit disjointed, unconnected to the work and maybe you feel like you’re just going through the motions to get that darn document finished before the July 4th holiday! Who cares about purpose? We’ve got BBQs to plan!

 In The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, Gary Burnison recounts a story he once heard. A great king ruled over a vast kingdom. The kingdom faced a terrible drought; crops withered and the land was hard and dry. He ordered a group of workers to start to dig into the hard, dry earth to try to find better soil for that year’s harvest. They dug and dug and dug and found no better soil. The workers grew angry, frustrated and began to plot against the king who continued to force them to dig. The king ordered his sage advisor to throw the disobedient workers in jail if they didn’t keep digging. The advisor, however, had a better idea. Instead of threatening the workers with jail, he took them on a tour of the closest city. The city was in shambles, children were starving, and families were barely able to get enough food to survive because of the drought’s impact. With their eyes wide open to the grim state of the kingdom, the workers realized why they were digging: they found their purpose. They got back to work with renewed vigor and dedication.

Does this story ring true to you? If so, you might have a purpose problem. Far too often, especially in large organizations with many different programs and activities, the overall purpose for the work is vague. The reason for being (the “purpose” of the organization – its vision) is divorced from the day-to-day activities of your team. Maybe it just feels like you are digging into hard, dry ground. Time to take a tour – survey your communities’ and state’s health outcomes. Re-read your state’s needs assessments and priorities. Talk to family leaders about what their challenges are in the state and what motivates them in their work. While you might not see the families of your kingdom in shambles, you might be surprised by the needs you encounter. And you can use that experience to recommit to your work, and to rediscover your purpose.

We all need to know not just how we are going to do our work, but why. In this busy season of application writing and block grant reviewing, take a step back from the tactical aspects of your day and think about its purpose. Is it clear? Do others share the vision? Is work aligned to truly realize your organization’s purpose? Like Burnison, I would argue this is an essential – or absolute – component on leadership. I look forward to hearing how you take this challenge on in your work!

[This is the second installment in a continuing series on The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership by Gary Burnison. If you would like to get your own copy of The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership and follow along over the next few months, you can order it online via the AMCHP link to AMCHP receives a small royalty for all orders placed via this link. The opinions of the author, and of Mike, are their own and are not the official position of AMCHP.]