An Elephant Named “Purpose”

Chapter 9

It was six men of Indostan,

to learning much inclined,

who went to see an elephant,

(though all of them were blind).

That each by observation,

might satisfy his mind.

After we follow the dialogue between these six blind men who, having each grabbed hold of the elephant, describe what they have encountered – a body mistaken for a wall, a tusk determined to be a spear, a trunk that is most certainly a snake. John Godfrey Saxe (retelling a classic Indian fable) closes his poem like this:

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong.

In recent decades, business and management theorists have latched onto helpful concepts like vision, values and mission, CSR, sustainability, and the like—all of which have produced good results for companies and society. Yet it is beginning to seem that they might all be parts of one big elephant named Purpose. We may well have done our best with what we’ve been given, but it is starting to look like we might’ve been just as blind as the 6 men of Indostan. Could it be that our valiant attempts to put words to the various missions, visions, values, CSR strategies and the like are only our own dim-sighted view of the smaller parts and connected appendages of Purpose the Elephant? She is fastened to two tethers—the company’s understanding of itself on the trunk and its relationship to others affixed to the tail.

Our blindness notwithstanding, this elephant is beginning to make herself known. Purpose has been the subject of much thought and discussion, and many other thinkers are catching glimpses of her.

Purpose, the mother of meaning

For example, Dan Pink, in the thesis of his influential book, Drive, outlines fundamental internal motivations that mobilize employees: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Deloitte CEO Punit Penjen introduced the results of a survey his firm recently conducted with these words, “organizations that focus beyond profits and instill a sense of purpose among employees are more likely to find long term success…. The majority of employees (68%) and executives (66%) believe businesses are not doing enough to create a sense of purpose and deliver meaningful impact.” In a recent management meeting I attended, the CIO observed that his best talent never much mentions income as long as they are working on something meaningful.  From where I sit, it looks like the Harvard Business Review was correct in trumpeting, “meaning is the new money.

This desire for meaning is a uniquely human insistence, and we are restless until we find it. This disquiet and desire for meaning is echoed by a multiplying throng of recruiters, marketers, employees, social activists, consumers, and CEO’s—and you are likely among their number. But meaning is an opaque pursuit, hard to pin down. Purpose, on the other hand—the mother of meaning—can be grasped.

In Canada, we have an immensely popular movement called “Me to We.” In three short words, Me to We captures the roots of human identity, the shifting pendulum of social values and our growing disquiet with individualism and the growing clamor for Purpose. Thus, the popularity of this movement and its brand is not surprising. At the same time, my colleagues at Ogilvy & Mather have discovered that something really important to a company lies at the intersection of these concepts of Me and We. Ogilvy’s “Big ideaL”—a theory for better understanding and describing the elephant named Purpose—suggests that a company’s sense of itself (Me) is relevant to a tension or problem beyond its own boundaries (We). In other words, Purpose is a balance of Me and We, not a movement from one to the other.

Framing Purpose

Since it is located at the overlap of Me and We, the Purpose of a company answers to the question “who are we in service to others?” As led by this question, over the coming weeks, we’ll seek out and describe more of this elephant named Purpose, and what a healthy one looks like.

A healthy Purpose:

  1. sits at the intersection of me and we.
  2. is other-oriented—Purpose speaks to a social good, often redemptive, that is not self-absorbed but rather meets the needs of another.
  3. is trustworthy— Purpose must be believed, seen and acted upon, because this is what will earn it trust. Before it can be fully realized, Purpose must be embodied.
  4. delivers significance—Purpose reaches beyond transaction, rational achievement, measurement and time. Purpose extends for the foreseeable future.

As you read on in the coming weeks, keep the following in mind:

Purpose does not claim, “this is where we are going, it will be great when we get there.” Purpose asserts, “this is why we are here, join us”. Tweet that!

To learn more about Telosity and join the movement to change business for the better, please visit Or you can reach Chris directly through [email protected].

For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.

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