What Is Purpose?

You wake up, the sun is up, and you know it is a beautiful day. You have your work laid out for you and happily you get out of bed. Often, this dreamy scenario exists when one has a raison d’être, a ‘purpose’ for waking up to a new day. Purpose is simple and yet larger than life at the same. It exists at both individual and organisational level. Purpose gets interpreted in many ways adding to the confusion. So what is purpose? Join us as we explore purpose from the lens of research and practice to understand it better.

Leading purposeful lives

Research has shown that purpose driven organisations create better outcomes for everyone involved. Individuals with purpose (a strong why) can bear any ‘how’ said Viktor Frankl a holocaust survivor.  This gives you an idea of the wide spectrum of influence purpose wields. It also explains the confusion in understanding what purpose is. Let me give you a few more examples:

  • A colleague and friend, who impacts economically under privileged kids by providing them free education. The difference he makes to society is his ‘why’ (purpose) probably much more than his senior corporate role.
  • Another example is the famous Zappos purpose – To Live and Deliver WOW.  This purpose is the reason why employees come to work and thrive in what they do. Their purpose impacts their culture and outcomes.
  •  If I turn the lens inwards, my own purpose and what gives me energy is ‘knowledge creation’. When I create content which enriches the field and helps people adapt to change, it gives me meaning. A competence driven take to purpose!

So, organisational and/or individual purpose can be defined through the lens of Competence, Culture and Societal impact. We turned towards research to really clarify which of these are the correct ways of looking at purpose?

Turns out all of them are!

What is purpose according to research?

We looked at more than 25 research papers on organisational purpose, a few are quoted below. Broadly the definition of purpose can be grouped under two heads:

  1. Reason for existence
  2. Guides decision and actions
Purpose is the reason for existence of organisations

Here is how a few research articles have defined purpose:-

  • Purpose is the ultimate priority of the organization, its reason for existence, its raison d’etre – Basu,1999.
  • (Purpose is about) saying, ‘why are we here as a business?’ It sits above. It’s a higher reason. Ebert at al. White Paper 2018
Guides decisions and actions:

Other research papers on the other hand have emphasized on the impact purpose has while defining it:-

  • Purpose is an organization’s meaningful and enduring reason to exist that aligns with long-term financial performance, provides a clear context for daily decision making, and unifies and motivates relevant stakeholders Hurth et al. 2018.
  • Organizational purpose is the motivating force moving, guiding, and delivering the organization to a perceived goal. It is the driving force, the fuel, the bond, the intangible link that pulls the organization together to achieve success. Reyes and Kleiner,1990.
  • An aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society-  Keller, 2015. 

In Summary, what is purpose?

Organisational Purpose is the need the business fulfils. The societal need and challenge it meets and solves. Organisational purpose is the uniting force for both internal and external stakeholders. It humanises an organisation and moves it beyond profit.


We will explore what purpose is not, what purpose does and how it benefits employees in the posts ahead. As we sign off for now, reminded of Pablo Picasso’s words,

"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away."
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