Purposeful leadership is increasingly in the spotlight across all sectors of economic, social and political life as people grow disenchanted, and even angry, about the perceived errors, failings and shortcomings of those in positions of power.

However, despite the hype, what is less clear is exactly what a purposeful leader is: what do they do that is different from a leader who lacks purpose? Do they in fact make any difference? And how can we get more leaders with purpose?

To shed some light on these issues, recent research sponsored by the CIPD and conducted by the IPA together with the Universities of Sussex and Greenwich, has explored purposeful leadership in depth in a series of case study organisations (in retail, charity, government and the police), as well as surveying the views of the wider working population.

First, we wanted to be sure that had a clear understanding of what we mean by ‘purposeful leadership’. Although much has been written about the topic among the practitioner community, there has in fact been no academic research.  After considering the most important factors that mark out a purposeful leader from one lacking in purpose, we defined purposeful leadership as:

‘the extent to which a leader has a strong moral self, a vision for his or her team, and takes an ethical approach to leadership marked by a commitment to stakeholders’.

In other words, leaders who are purposeful set out a clear and aspirational vision for their team. They demonstrate a commitment to a wide range of stakeholders, rather than just taking into account short-term financial performance and, finally, their personal moral code matters a great deal to them.

One of our first findings was that just 21% of managers in the UK rate themselves highly as purposeful leaders, and the proportion does not vary depending on organisational size, sector or location.  The figures were somewhat higher in our case study organisations, but the overall percentage is a cause for concern, particularly given we found evidence in the retailer of a link between purposeful leadership and performance. We also found that 40% of employees believe that their line manager behaves ethically at work.  This again is a cause for concern, given the strong associations we found between ethical leadership and important outcomes for leaders’ direct reports such as higher levels of job satisfaction and meaningful work, and lower levels of intent to quit.

The importance of working for an organisation which fosters a purposeful approach to leadership was evident when we talked to employees about their own experiences.  Employees in organisations with high levels of purposeful leadership talked very positively about their ‘visionary’ leaders who had steered them through difficult situations and acted as strong role models ensuring that these positive approaches were cascaded through the organisation.  Conversely, employees conveyed a strong sense of disappointment and frustration with leaders who they felt failed to share a purposeful vision, leading to muddle and confusion over where they should be focusing their efforts.

It is important for employees to believe that they ‘fit in’ with their organisation if they are to experience high levels of engagement and satisfaction.  When we talked to both employees and line managers, we found that people’s ethical values are very important to their self-image, and several told us about times when they had left previous employers because they did not agree with the way that things were done. Looking at our findings, just over one-quarter of employees in our case study organisations, 27%, rate their leaders’ ethical behaviour highly and say that they feel their values fit with those of their employer. Conversely, we found that 32% of employees are operating in an ‘ethical void’ where they rate both their leader’s ethical behaviour and the alignment of their personal values with those of the organisation as low. In these cases, there is a risk of employees experiencing significant disenchantment and quitting their employer.

The fact that the proportion of purposeful and ethical leaders varies so widely across the wider working population and the case study organisations suggests that there is a great deal that employers can do to raise levels of purposefulness, to the benefit of individual employees and organisations, as well as wider society.

Bailey, C., Shantz, A., Brione, P., Yarlagadda, R. and Zheltoukhova, K. (2017) Purposeful Leadership: What is it, What Causes it and Where can we Find it? Technical Report. Wimbledon: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.