Light a fire

Find your purpose to thrive in an era of disruption.

When Mark Cutifani joined the loss-making, debt-laden global mining conglomerate Anglo American as its chief executive, he found a dysfunctional organization. After conducting an urgent asset review, he had a realization: “If we don’t shake our leg and get cracking, we’re not going to be here for much longer.” It was clear that tough calls were needed. He needed to unlock the potential of the company, and in the process ensure that “everyone understand[s] how they could be a part of the change.” Cutifani changed half of the top leadership team and reduced the 160,000-strong workforce to 90,000. 

Today, Anglo American is a very different company. While it reduced the number of its mines – from 68 when Cutifani joined in 2013, to 37 when he retired in 2022 – its output is 10% higher. The company scores highly across the Responsible Mining Index; Cutifani pursued a range of environmentally sustainable solutions that supported local communities. 

Without his clear sense of purpose, the company would likely have failed. Yet speak to him about how easy it was to lead this disruptive transition and it becomes clear that it took a huge emotional toll. Leaders are not immune from the strain that comes with disrupting the status quo. But with clarity of purpose, we can find the spark to lead through disruption and achieve extraordinary things. 

What’s your purpose?

Those who lack clarity of purpose risk becoming like flotsam, prisoners to currents, winds and tides. Compare these individuals with great leaders who are driven to achieve something purposeful, bigger than themselves. Like a fire, leaders expend energy in pursuit of the difference, or disruption they seek, generating heat. They attract fuel, in the form of cash and talented employees, and oxygen, in the form of customers. With heat, fuel and oxygen, we have a fire – and fire is always disruptive. 

What fire are you building? The answer lies in your purpose. When Kate Ringrose was chief financial officer at UK energy giant Centrica, I asked her about her purpose. “This is an industry that matters at every single level,” she told me. “On any given day, I can be as concerned about someone who is struggling with heating bills as with the geopolitics of a region, as well as the future of the planet. My role as the CFO is to tell the story of the company through numbers.”

Defining your purpose

Whenever I start working with a leader, I always begin by asking the same question: “What do you want to do with your life?” It’s a question I’ve asked thousands of times. The answers are reliably predictable. Depending on your life and career stage, you might tell me that you want a good job,
a nice house, a loving partner, a happy family and career success, or that you want to make a difference.

These are all common desires, and rightly so. But as a leader, I would press you to go deeper. Who are you? What do you truly value? What is it about you that makes you unique? What deeply frustrates you? What change gets you excited? 

This might be the first time you’ve given this serious consideration. In that case, start more generically and consider the things that matter most to you. If taking a whole-life view feels difficult, take a shorter-term perspective. Figure out what three key accomplishments you want on your résumé in, say, three years’ time.

If you’ve not taken the time to think through what you want to do with your life, being asked about your purpose is tough. Some people feel they are too busy to think about such things. I would argue they are filling their lives with the wrong things. It is easy to be ‘busy’. It provides a constant dopamine hit and sense of importance. But could your need to keep (or appear) busy actually be a way of trying to fulfill a deep need for self-worth by seeking the approval of others? The problem is, by only doing what you believe other people want of you, you’re not considering what you want. The result is a reactive life where others call the shots.

It has taken me years of reflection and distillation to be able to state my professional purpose in a single sentence: enabling leaders to achieve meaningful purpose. Once we are clear on our purpose it underpins every interaction, career decision, professional development, and what company you join or run. 

When we decide what difference we want to make and start to expend energy to bring about that change, we rub up against the status quo, which acts to stop us from moving forward. The more disruptive an idea, the more it is resisted.

The status quo is the disruptive leader’s main enemy, and it makes achieving meaningful disruption tough. 

As Heather Cykoski, senior vice president at Schneider Electric, puts it: “There’s too much following the status quo in this world, where people simply repeat the same thing over and over, even if it doesn’t particularly work. My purpose is to find a new way of doing things.” 

If you don’t know what you stand for, neither will anyone else. Ultimately, your purpose will typically be a variation on one word: impact. Everybody wants to make a difference. When we begin the pursuit of our purpose, we can have a tremendous positive impact.

Why purpose matters

Our time on earth is short. The older we get, the quicker time seems to pass. Isn’t it ever more important that we expend our energy and time on what truly matters to us? If you are unsure or feel you’ve lost your way, write your retirement article (see box, above) and revisit it from time to time. Take the time to reflect. What really matters to you? 

The clearer we are about our purpose, the easier decision-making becomes. The more we allow our purpose to burn within us, the more proactive we become as leaders. We can’t help but expend our energy in pursuit of the difference we want to make. Before we know it, we have all the elements required for a purposeful disruptive fire that, with time, leaves a legacy we can be rightly proud of. 

Mark Bateman is chief executive of WeQual and author of Disruptive Leadership: Using Fire to Drive Purposeful Change.