Passion Vs. Purpose in Leadership: Which Do You Need Most?

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November 19, 2018

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Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” Oprah Winfrey

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A few weeks ago when I wrote about The Four Ps of Leadership (Purpose, Plan, People, Power), I heard from a number of people that I should have included Passion or better yet, have substituted Passion for Purpose as the first P. (I also heard that I should have included Patience and Persistence, but that’s another story.) More recently, I attended an American Express Leadership Academy in London where participants — emerging, high potential leaders from charitable organizations in the U.K. — were asked to rank themselves on a passion-to-purpose continuum. Many were unsure where they fit.

Philosophers and poets (and consultants) have debated the tension between purpose and passion for years. Some have argued that passion is about your emotions while purpose is the reason behind those emotions. Or, that passion is about the “what” (I’m passionate about ___”) and purpose is about the “why” (“I am here to accomplish___”). Or, that passion is about yourself while purpose is about others. Or, that passion is the result of doing meaningful work, not the reason for doing that work.

Aristotle spoke of the “function of man” as being a “rational animal” linked to reason and language as distinguishing characteristic of humans. He only considered passion in terms of pleasure and pain. Socrates believed that passion imprisoned the soul to the body. And, Plato believed that the dispassionate, rather than the passionate, self should be our goal as humans. When passion does enter the picture, Plato argues that it requires mastery and discipline to control it.

While there is no single unified tradition for Eastern philosophies, many religious leaders speak of the “meaning of life” being self-awareness, enlightenment and consciousness rather than rational or worldly pursuits. In Buddhism, cravings or desires are thought to be the cause of suffering so they should be avoided.

In our society, how often have you heard someone say, “Follow your passion!” rather than “Find your purpose!”? Passion is often seen as an antidote to seemingly boring careers or something that every person needs in order to be happy in their work. But, the truth is that not everyone has a true passion or the ability to pursue it as a vocation. In fact, following one’s passion may be a dangerous career choice because passions can come and go while purpose is (hopefully) more permanent.

There’s a story about someone asking Eleanor Roosevelt about her “passionate interest” in a piece of proposed social legislation. “Yes,” she did support the cause she said. “But, I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.” Indeed, like Plato, some writers have argued that the best leaders are dispassionate about their causes. A contrary opinion was expressed by American philosopher Thomas Nagle who believed that human flourishing involves the well-functioning of all of our essential capabilities-both subjective and objective.

Whatever your point of view, leaders need a guiding direction. If that direction is the result of a true passion in life, and that passion can translate into worthwhile action, then all the better. But, if that direction comes from a dispassionate view that things can be better with a different approach, the resulting purpose can be a lasting noble pursuit.

Either way, leaders need to recognize where they fall on the passion-to-purpose spectrum in order to effectively marshal the resources (and energy) to chart their own paths. As a leader, I tend toward the purpose end of the continuum, but there are many truly inspiring leaders who are driven by passion first.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.com

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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