As a creator speaking for his subject, the subject being maybe the greatest philosopher of all time, Charlie Brown, Charles Schultz offered his sentiments on purpose three decades ago. “My life has no purpose, not direction, no aim, no meaning and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”
I propose that not only do humans not need a purpose, they do not, as individuals, have a purpose. Rather, the pursuit of a life purpose is a distraction from being happy since it is isolating and fragmenting from the whole of which we are a part. I experienced this first hand in working with the first business to every introduce the idea of “purpose” into a business setting and use it to guide the growth of people and the business. The Lima, Ohio soap business of Procter and Gamble, believed that business could be more focused and provide more meaning to workers if “purpose” became a part of the work. But it was not focused on individual workers.
The premise they worked from was very successful. Many papers and case studies were published regarding how well it drove a business outcome, plus much more. The idea, as P&G Lima stated it was that “systems had purposes and humans had roles in a system”. A watershed had a purpose and humans had a role in its health and evolution. Communities, as a system, had purpose and humans had roles that were very meaningful in those purposes being realized. The business teams worked with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of Life as evolving and being driven by a teleos, a purpose.
P&G believed its customer’s had purpose and they were to serve them. The communities they lived in had such, as did the natural world around them. As a result they created the first know substitute for phosphates and taught cattle farmers how to manage water systems to keep the waterways clean and healthy. They supported overcoming racism in Lima during a time of riots by forming mixed racial groups to lead dialogues, particularly with youth groups. And they built the beginning of P&Gs revolutionary new way of running a business—self-managing teams who serve stakeholders outside the organization, as the organizing concept for how to run and grow a business.
The team leaders, who spearheaded,that effort as a new start up and moved onto retrofitting a union operation with the same principles, went into many other businesses. They also affected other industries thinking about “systems having purposes and humans having significant and creative roles to play”, in bringing those purposes to fruition.
I have been blessed to take the principles of the methodology behind it all into many parts of the world, including South Africa, just as the New Republic was being born in the early nineties. Colgate Palmolive, as a part of growing its business, created hundreds of thousands of small township businesses, leaders who served on Mandela’s township councils and grew managers from within the ranks of the workforce so fast they met the constitution demand to match the number and rank of management with the racial mix of the country in half the time required. They did this with no labor strikes at a time when, literally, every other business in the Johannesburg region was brought to its knees by strikes and riots to prevent developing black leaders.
Where people worked to serve the purpose of evolving systems, they have deep and meaningful roles, which become intertwined with those purposes. To paraphrase Charlie Brown, or more specifically Charles Schultz, “systems had purposes even if no individual life had a separate purpose, and yet they were happy. They must have been doing something right?”
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about the author
Carol Sanford has been leading major consulting change efforts in both Fortune 500 and new-economy businesses for more than 30 years. Her client list includes long-term relationships with Colgate Europe and Africa and DuPont Canada, US, Asia and Europe. She also works with new-economy companies like Intel, Agilent and leaders of corporate responsibility such as Seventh Generation. Google uses her book for innovation and strategy guidance in an Innovation Lab.
She is the author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (March 2011), Jossey-Bass, Publisher. Her new book, The Responsible Entrepreneur will be out this fall. Carol also holds undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley in Economics and Public Law and graduate degree from California State University, San Jose in Urban Planning and business. She currently lives in Seattle.