As I cycled to my favourite café this morning to start work on this blog I passed a gym. There was a big window looking into the studio, which was packed with perhaps twenty or more heavily perspiring men and women being put through their paces in a spin class. Good for them! Here’s to New Year’s Resolutions!

And… I hate to sound cynical, but I’m curious as to what I’ll see when I cycle past at the beginning of next month. You see your local gym is a great place to learn about the average life span of a New Year’s resolution. If you go along in early January the chances are you’ll have to turn around and go home – the place will be full, the air heavy with the smell of sweat and good intentions.

But that’s OK; you just have to be patient. Give it a month or two and there will be plenty of space! Because, sadly, good intentions don’t last, and most New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure.

Quitter’s Day

A YouGov poll from 2018 revealed that only 4% of people report following through on all of the resolutions they set. And the speed with which they falter is astonishing. The second Friday in January has become known as ‘Quitter’s Day’ – this is the day that the social network for athletes, Strava identified as being that on which most people are likely to give up on their New Year’s resolutions.

In fairness to those of us who have tried and failed in the past we don’t make it easy on ourselves! A lot of resolutions tend to be reactive. Typically we look in the mirror after an over-indulgent holiday season and say to ourselves: “Right, I really need to eat more healthily this year” or “Oh my word, I have to start exercising more regularly”.

There in the language is the problem – “need to” and “have to” are not intrinsically motivating. It’s the language of rules rather than intentions. Now, of course, rules have their place but there is one question that any rule has to be strong enough to withstand, and that is ‘why’?

Start with ‘Why’

If you make a resolution to eat more healthily then at some point you will be picking away at a fruit salad while the person next to you tucks into a sticky toffee pudding. And your mind will say “Why am I doing this to myself?” If you make a resolution to exercise by running outside then at some point you will open the curtains and it will be raining. And your mind will say “Why would I want to take myself out in the pouring rain when I could stay in the house with a coffee and a chocolate biscuit?”

Unless there is a strong, compelling answer to the question “Why?” it is very unlikely that any resolution will stick…

It all comes down to purpose. A clear sense of purpose makes any New Year’s resolution so much more achievable. You want to eat more healthily? Why? Is it to feel better? If so, why? If you feel better, what will that make possible for you that really matters? You want to exercise more? Why? Is it to be stronger and more physically fit? If so, why? In what way will that allow you to be the person you want to be and have the impact on the world that you want to have?

And it is not just about resolutions. ‘Why’ is the central question in life and particularly in leadership, but one that is too often overlooked in favour of short-termism and fire-fighting. And, as author of ‘People With Purpose’, Kevin Murray says, “Being purpose-led is no longer desirable, it is crucial in a more connected, transparent and complex world”.

‘We Are One’

It’s perhaps an indictment of the current state of global political leadership that when a national leader steps up and offers clear, heartfelt, purpose-driven leadership it captures our attention.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden had already gained international recognition as a young woman leading a major nation, first whilst pregnant, and then as a new mother. And the world looked on with admiration as, in March 2019, she led her people through one of the darkest moments in their history. After 50 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in two mosques Arden quietly travelled amongst Muslim communities, wearing a headscarf and opening meetings with Arabic greetings. The phrase that returned time and again as she addressed reporters, prayer meetings, and grieving families was “We are one”.

These three words resonated through her words and actions, as she channelled the grief of the nation. And, driven by this sense of purpose, she won near-unanimous support for a ban on semi-automatic weapons of the type used in the attack. But when the message is so clear and strong, who would choose not to join the movement?

More than a slogan

The corporate world learned the language of purpose long ago. For decades it has been the norm for companies to go beyond mere goal setting, and to focus much time, energy, and resources on articulating values, visions, and mission statements.

But, as many have learned to their cost, simply having a vision or mission statement – simply claiming to have a purpose – is very different to acting on it.

How’s this for a mission statement to rally behind:

We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves…. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.”

Unfortunately, somewhere down the line, the leadership of Enron lost sight of the importance of rejecting ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance, and invested in a systematic, institutionalised and ingenious campaign of accounting fraud.

A mission statement is just words. Leadership with purpose can unite a nation. Leadership without purpose can ruin untold numbers of lives.

A new decade

Unfortunately slogans, branding, and a cosmetic connection with purpose is still all too common in political and corporate leadership. The fact that we have entered a new decade has launched a thousand marketing and internal communication campaigns with the wearyingly predictable slogan ‘2020 vision’.

But we have reached a moment in human history when the stakes couldn’t be higher. While other UK newspapers chose triumphalist, glib, or prosaic headlines on New Year’s Eve, the front page of the Daily Mirror on 31st December 2019 was stark: “A Decade to Save the World”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2019 that we have between 10 and 14 years to radically reduce carbon emissions before it will be impossible to avoid catastrophic environmental consequences. To achieve this goal will, they say, require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

To paraphrase Kevin Murray, being purpose-led is no longer desirable – our lives depend on it. The leaders who take us to the next stage of our development as a species will be those who are engaged with purpose, who are driven by something far deeper than the commitment to profit that has got us into this mess.

Will you be one of them? Will you be a leader who drives humanity forward, or a manager who shuffles the deckchairs as the boat sinks?

Share This