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Leadership Snohomish County (LSC) is a nonprofit that connects, ignites and develops county-specific sustainable leaders to strengthen our communities. Each year, we help experienced and emerging leaders in Snohomish County gain an understanding of the critical issues affecting the region and the stewardship capabilities needed to resolve them. Through our nine-month Signature Program and Young Professionals Program, we work in small teams with the business, government and nonprofit sectors as Community Impact Project Partners. LSC features more than 700 alumni who remain strongly invested in Snohomish County.

Inspiration from Local Leaders

What defines a community? It's not always what you'd think.

Purpose: Direction Comes From Within

Erika Olson

By Sara Haner, LSC Signature Class Member


It’s time for a relaxing meditation exercise! Are you ready? Great!

Close your eyes. Imagine you’re someplace relaxing, like the beach, or a meadow filled with wildflowers, or in line at the DMV.

(How are you still reading this if your eyes are closed? That’s irrelevant. Let’s continue…)

Take a deep breath in, and let it out.

Think back to the best job you’ve ever had, and visualize the happiest moment in your career so far.

Maybe you’re winning an award? Crushing a presentation? Working hard on a project you love?

Excellent. Now take another deep breath in, and let it out.

Now imagine the worst job you’ve ever had.

Maybe you’re filled with Monday morning dread? Battling impossible stress? Eating lunch alone in your car?

Are you still breathing deeply? What do you mean this isn’t that relaxing? Oops… I’m sorry about that.

This is a bold argument, but I’m going to make it. I think there’s only one thing that makes a job wonderful or awful. Purpose. Of course, we’ve all had terrible bosses, ineffective colleagues, and crazy work-life-balance that can all lead to burnout. But at the heart of all of these things, to me, is purpose.

Leadership Snohomish County loves purpose. It’s even in their tagline! (People. Passion. Purpose.) When I think about my career, I realize that my very best and very worst jobs have all been determined by purpose or lack thereof. When I say purpose, I mean not only my own inner purpose that guides me, but also the purpose that is communicated and exemplified by my leaders.

We dove into the topic of purpose in Leadership Snohomish County recently, and studied it in the Positive Leadership curriculum that we love. The curriculum explains that purpose comes in three flavors: original, personal and situational. Each dimension of purpose is important, and like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, each level builds upon the last.

Original purpose, our curriculum explains, is the most basic expression of purpose. This is your survival-mode purpose. You’re working to pay your bills. Your CEO comes to work to make sure the company stays afloat. Original purpose is so important, but can feel quite reactive. It’s not the big-picture values that drive an individual or organization. That’s where personal purpose comes in.

Personal purpose is a very individual expression of purpose. Once you know you’re able to pay your bills, or your startup will survive, you can start focusing on what’s really important. Personal purpose is like your thumbprint – it’s different for every leader. An effective leader understands his or her own personal purpose, and can communicate it clearly to the team.

But, yikes! Discovering your personal purpose can be challenging, especially if you’re starting out in your career, or seem to always be stuck in original purpose mode. If you’re struggling with finding your personal purpose, pay close attention to the tasks or topics that recharge your batteries. Is there something you do when you’re procrastinating? Something that makes you lose track of time? Psychologists call this “flow,” and when you’re in it, there’s a good chance you’re working close to your personal purpose. (My personal purpose has nothing to do with spreadsheets or budgeting, just FYI.) Personal purpose—and this is important—can’t be something that exists to only make others happy. Positive Leadership says that if satisfying others is your scorecard for success, it may prove challenging to remain purposeful. Boom!

Situational purpose is the third type that Positive Leadership outlines. This is the most practical and frequent expression of purpose and it changes from circumstance to circumstance. When I’m working on a project that I love, those dreaded budgets and spreadsheets are inevitable. In this situation, reframing the task in my mind to align with my personal purpose makes it tolerable, and dare I say, enjoyable. As an employee, finding this alignment between the mundane and your personal purpose is important. As a leader, this is critical. Being able to communicate the purpose in each mundane task helps keep your team motivated and inspired. Have you ever tried this with meetings? Defining for your team why you’re having the meeting, and what the goal for the meeting is? If not, give this type of situational purpose a shot, and see how the tenor of the meeting changes. (Leadership magic tricks!)

It’s important to interject here that purpose and authenticity go hand in hand. You can’t pretend to have purpose; you have to have an authentic, legitimate purpose in mind before you can inspire others to get on board.

I have a feeling that at this point, you’ve repressed that horrible meditation exercise I made you go through at the start. Unfortunately, I’d like to revisit it for a moment. (Don’t be afraid – think of this as free therapy. We’ll get through this together!)

When you think back to the worst job you’ve ever had, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lack of purpose is the culprit. It can be a lack of your own purpose, or a lack of purpose communicated by your leaders.

Positive Leadership explains that situations and people that do not allow you to access your personal purpose are painful. When you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel like you don’t belong, something key to your purpose is missing or constrained. When reflecting on that terrible job, does this resonate? Maybe the job didn’t align with your basic or personal Purpose? Maybe your leader did a lousy job of communicating his or her own personal purpose, or translating that to a situational purpose?

As a leader, keep this in mind. Are you clearly communicating your own personal purpose to your team? Are you applying that to help show situational purpose and mobilize your tribe when things get difficult? Are you communicating your purpose authentically? Positive Leadership says that the leader’s job is to recognize purpose, make it clear to others, and remind them when they lose sight of it. But before purpose can be revealed to others, a leader must first recognize it. Only then can a leader enable people to connect what they do to something meaningful.

To sum up, I’d like to take you back to your happy place, that beach or meadow filled with wildflowers, and reflect on this quote by Carl Jung, shared in the Positive Leadership curriculum:

“When goals go, meaning goes. When meaning goes, purpose goes. When purpose goes, life goes dead in our hands."

It is our job as leaders to keep that purpose alive for ourselves, and our teams.

Have a purpose-filled day!