Purpose Is Powerful

“Why” Trumps “What” Every Time

Purpose is Powerful

“Why” Trumps “What” Every Time


When I commanded a brigade of 5,000 Soldiers and Marines in Ramadi, Iraq in 2005-06 the environment was very chaotic and violent. As the brigade commander, it was my responsibility as the leader of our military unit to articulate “purpose” for the men and women of our brigade.

I felt it was important that they heard from me why we needed to make the sacrifice to be away from our families and risk our lives daily. The purpose I articulated was, “the reason we are here in Iraq fighting the insurgents and terrorists is to keep our families, friends, and all Americans safer back home.”

As I conducted battlefield circulation in Ramadi, I consistently communicated that purpose to every Soldier and Marine from battalion commanders down to the youngest and least experienced privates.

I believe articulating the shared purpose improved morale and helped them to cope with the hardships of the deployment. I also believe it helped them be true to their military values and their profession as we performed our duty for the greater good of our nation.


Purpose is Power

I read Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” again recently. I read it many years ago, and I wanted to reread it because it comes with a powerful message. Frankl spent the years 1942-45 in a Nazi concentration camp. He was an Austrian Jew and was educated as a psychiatrist.

Based on his horrific experience in the concentration camps, Frankl came away believing we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how we cope with it. He quotes the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who said, he who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any” how”.

Men like Frankl and Nietzsche understood that “purpose” drives people to succeed even in the face of great hardship. Purpose is a powerful fuel for individual endeavors and organizational undertakings alike. Purpose is powerful.

“Why” Trumps “What”

In the Army, we write operations orders to issue to units prior to conducting a military operation. The mission statement is a key element of the operations order and provides a unit a task and purpose.

Another way to state this is that the mission provides a unit the “what” and the “why”. If I had to choose between telling an organization what to do or why they needed to do it, I would choose the “why” every time. “Why” equals “purpose” and when people buy into the purpose, they will achieve great things, even in times of struggle.

I believe it is essential for a unit or an individual to understand why they need to do something. People will figure out what they need to do to accomplish the purpose if it comes to that and certainly, they can figure out how to accomplish the task.

The caveat I will add is that leaders should never just throw purpose over the fence and walk away. Leaders need to make themselves available to provide guidance along the way if need be.

Leaders Must Provide Purpose

It is the leader who needs to articulate the purpose of an organization. Without the leader providing the purpose to an organization, that organization will flounder and go in potentially many different directions.

If you have ten rowers rowing a boat, they all must work together. Ultimately, some will be stronger than the others.  Without the leader providing purpose and direction, that boat will probably go in circles and never reach the intended destination.

While there may be many in the organization who can work on the “what” and “how”, it is the leader’s role to provide the “why”. No real progress begins until the leader determines and articulates the purpose. The leader must then enthusiastically and consistently communicate that purpose throughout the organization.

The Three Keys to Purpose

There are three key things to remember about purpose.

Purpose is powerful and can change lives. A sense of purpose will inspire those within an organization to work for something greater than themselves.

“What” trumps “why” every time. If you can only provide one or the other, provide the “why.” Leaders must provide purpose to an organization to keep the organization moving in the right direction.

The leader’s role is to articulate purpose for an organization. Leaders provide guidance and it is purpose that guides organizations. There is tremendous power in purpose.

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