Common Purpose: A book review by Bob Morris

Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve the Extraordinary
Joel Kurtzman
Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons (2010)

“Organizations themselves are mindless, so if people don’t repair them, no one will.”

Regrettably, the old rules of employment have created in many organizations a serious crisis that is the result of command and control management, hierarchical structure, bureaucratic swamps, and dueling silos. According to Joel Kurtzman, “When an organization inhibits the ability of a group of people to achieve its goals, it must be reformed. When an organization consistently raises up leaders who suppress, demean, or nullify the productivity of others, swift action must be taken to right this situation.”

The new rules of employment that Kurtzman endorses are by no means new. Consider these observations by 3M’s then chairman and CEO, William L. McKnight, in 1924: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Kurtzman wholeheartedly agrees, noting that “people have a need to be heard, to be respected, and to control their space.” The results of hundreds of major research studies, involving millions of workers throughout the world, reveal that “feeling appreciated” is ranked either #1 or #2 among what is most important to them.

I agree with Kurtzman that common purpose requires common goals as well as leadership (at all levels and in all area) to generate and energize sufficient support to achieve those goals “that are beyond the capability of an individual to accomplish alone. [Structures, strategies, and policies] are methods for aligning groups of people so they can achieve common goals.”

In Good to Great, Jim Collins observes that Level 5 leaders are to their companies what Abraham Lincoln was to the nation. The key to a Level 5 is ambition first and foremost for the cause, the company, the work — not any individual — combined with the will to make good on that ambition. “In looking at the data, we noticed that leaders in our study had significant life experiences that might have sparked or furthered their maturation…I believe — although I cannot prove — that potential Level 5 leaders are highly prevalent in our society. The problem is not, in my estimation, a dearth of potential Level 5 leaders. They exist all around us, if we just know what to look for. And what is that? Look for situations where extraordinary results exist but where no individual steps forth to claim excess credit. You will likely find a potential Level 5 leader at work.”

Kurtzman asserts (and I agree) “when it comes to common purpose and resonant leadership, one size does not fit all. People are individuals, and those who thrive in one firm might not thrive in another. Chemistry, fit, values, and many other qualities are in the eye of the beholder.” It is important to keep in mind that a common purpose that unites and motivates one group of people may not appeal to – or “fit” — others. That is why Zappos offers a bonus to all new hires after they complete a two-week training program. They are told, “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit. Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on The Offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for.

It is rare but nonetheless possible for those who comprise a segment within an organization – Disney and Pixar animation teams, Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” and researchers at Xerox PARC — to share a common purpose that can produce “an almost palpable sense” of what defines the entire enterprise. “It is the feeling that we’re all in this together and that we all know and understand what to do, why we’re here, and what we stand for…Common purpose is the goal of great leaders and great leadership. It is the way a group of free agents is transformed into a cohesive, orderly group – an organization – aligned around a common set of goals in a way that makes defeat almost impossible.”


How specifically to achieve and then sustain one? Read the book.

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