“I didn’t want to follow my bliss, I wanted to pay my bills”
Shauna M Ahern, Food writer, Guardian, 8th October 2019

“Most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”.
Steve Jobs

“I hate all this purpose & emerging future stuff – it’s so challenging – can’t I just set a goal or something?”
‘Y’ (a corporate coach, one of my systemic coaching students)


There is an approach to navigating our lives and personal development, which boldly (and sometimes over-optimistically!) reaches from us to the future. This is typified at the beginning of a new year, and perhaps even more so at the start of a new decade like the 2020s, when we are frequently exhorted to set goals, intentions – or some variants of New Year Resolutions – to put our lives on track, be the “best version of ourselves” etc. We may even be told that we “must” set goals to live a purpose-led life.

In this two-part article – in which I explore personal purpose from the perspective of systemic leadership, and the particular lens of constellations work that informs it – I’m going to suggest something a bit different, that I feel is particularly relevant to this time of crisis and systemic movement. Namely, following the advice of many wise teachers, that we first of all listen deeply to our hearts – and to life, and what the emerging future may be calling us to be – before reaching out to a ‘planned future’ and telling our lives what we intend to do with them. Only then can we truly decide which “appointments” we were “born to keep” (as Mark Nepo puts it in one of his poems).

In this first part, I describe an approach to discovering authentic purpose, which is deeply personal AND deeply relational, systemic and ecological. In the second part, I will go on to explore how embodying our purpose – while listening to our heart – can help integrate the ongoing conversation between two seemingly contradictory pulls, of attuning to our own deepest personal needs on the one hand, and our wish to go out into the world and be of useful service on the other.

The Marmite of Personal Purpose

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. I have chosen the quotes above as place-markers for what I experience – in more usual (less virtual) times – as a fairly polarised response when the subject arises in conversation or groups. On the one hand, there are the warm, excited responses of the “we get it/we’re in” crowd (often coaches, sometimes entrepreneurs and founders). On the other, there is often a kind of eye-rolling irritation and scepticism at the very mention of the subject, as if it is a feel good distraction from the harder realities of life and business. Some people in the latter camp are good friends and colleagues of mine. Opposers often provide important information in a system of course, and I aim to write for them and everyone.

Two concerns

As I focus on what a systemic lens reveals about purpose, I’m not going to write about the significant research that exists on the subject. One of the common myths about purpose – espoused by some more sceptical friends and colleagues – is that there is little or no research on the subject. This isn’t really true anymore, in early 2020. Although the research certainly has some gaps, there is now a significant amount of research by EY, Deloittes as well as Said Oxford and Harvard Business Schools on the business benefits of connecting to a potent organisational purpose. There’s also a growing amount of research on connecting to personal purpose that will be decoded, explored and brought to life in my friend and colleague Sarah Rozenthuler’s forthcoming book (along with her own considerable wisdom) 1. This includes many personal benefits including – better health and even longevity – as well as substantial business benefits.

A second criticism is that a majority of people are concerned with earning a living, and finding other needs such as belonging through their work. Most people have other values and motivations for their work and – following on from this, to put it bluntly – purpose is a rather lofty preoccupation for the privileged. Although the first part of this proposition is probably true, this doesn’t mean purpose doesn’t exist as a rich potential for all of us (whether we are interested or not). I’ve worked with hundreds of people – from literally all walks of life, and of all ages – to find their purpose and Leading Principles, and am yet to find someone who doesn’t have an important purpose. Finding this purpose and Leading Principles gives a richer sense of meaning to work that may be more about putting food on our table than expressing our deeper needs. Indeed, it may connect us to what Rebecca Solnit has called the “power to benefit others” – like Cinderella in her cake shop – even in the midst of overwork, degrading work or crisis.

The Systemic View: Looking Forward, Honouring the Past

As with organizational purpose, the systemic perspective is that personal purpose is inherent (to all of us) rather than constructed. This means that it needs to be discovered and articulated rather than merely invented. Although coming from a different tradition, the American educator Parker Palmer expresses this beautifully:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you….Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear, a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling towards some prize just beyond my reach, but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess”.

This is ‘big’ profound territory of course, and may even seem grandiose to some, perhaps especially in the current climate. Otto Scharmer likens finding our vocation or Work (big W) to the archetype of the Grail Quest, and finding the deepest expression of our creative potential in the world. Since we have always been attracting it, our purpose is encoded in our past – the clues lie in our family system, our qualities and strengths, our Enneagram type, the talents and capacities we have developed along the path of our career – as well as what pulls us from the future, and our passions and loves. Yes, we may be struggling just to earn a living at times, but our hearts (if we listen to them) provide the crucial compass, or even passports to the territory of our deeper potential.

As with organizational purpose, the embodied lens of constellations work shows that when a person connects to their personal purpose in a real way, this provides a powerful energetic wellspring. However, it also shows that connecting to our purpose is a considerable developmental achievement, since it evokes unfinished business, system dynamics and loyalties. Let’s just say that many of our purposes are literally very weighed down! We carry the weight of our ancestors with us, and this is perhaps unsurprising if we take a longer historical view. As David Whyte has written, we are incredibly privileged even to explore into the meaning of our work:

“Many of our ancestors pined for good work as they would for a lover, and remained unrequited and stricken by want. Many of our ancestors died while working in dangerous or desperate conditions. Some left good work and found none to replace it….Whatever our inheritance of work in this life, we are only the apex of innumerable lives of endeavor and sacrifice”.

Discovering Purpose 1: the Purpose Diamond

Based on our inquiry into purpose with people over several years, Sarah Rozenthuler and I developed a personal purpose diamond, containing the idea that our purpose may have many ‘levels’ – including a conditioned or inherited purpose that is a facsimile of our true one.

  1. The Conditioned purpose we took on in our family of origin – what others expected us to do, and how we shaped ourselves to fit those expectations. Without having done a significant amount of work on ourselves, this will be largely unconscious.
  2. Espoused, or consciously believed purpose. The purpose we articulate once we reach adulthood, or what we believe we’re about.
  3. Actual lived purpose. The purpose that we are currently embodying, regardless of what we say we’re doing.
  4. Our True (most compelling) purpose is what we are uniquely here to do. When we are living our true purpose, it brings a great sense of aliveness and has a felt sense of ‘rightness’ about it. As we willingly serve our ‘beneficiaries’ – other people or the planet – we feel connected with something larger than our self. (see Sarah’s book 1 for more detail on the Personal Purpose Diamond).

The Diamond makes for a powerful inquiry tool in conversation, or embodied experience in a constellation (N.B. don’t try this at home!). It invariably reveals us that we have much more potential awaiting us – in the ‘True North’ of our real purpose – than we imagined. This takes us off on a co-creative hunt to find out what this is.

Discovering Purpose 2: the Leading Principles

Although there are many ways to do this, the most direct and precise route we know is to uncover our Leading Principles, which can be understood as the essence of our purpose. Inspired by the work of my colleague Jan Jacob Stam, these are an answer to the question: “What are we/am I in essence to the outside world, and the upcoming future?”. At an organisational level, these principles could include, for instance, doing research and providing executive education and transformative learning (in a business school).

At a personal level, our Leading Principles can feel less concrete, and seem similar to personal qualities or values, like bringing our authenticity or unlocking people’s creative expression. However, when we uncover them there is unmistakable sense of rightness that is hugely energising.

The constellating process also shows that it is very important to work out which Leading Principle has priority. Indeed, what might be thought of as lack of leadership, poor marketing – or even self-sabotage – often turns out to be a lack of clarity around leading principles.

Discovering Purpose 3: Articulation – and Flow

Out of this work we can then craft a potent purpose statement – perhaps a zinger with any luck. We can also test that expression of our purpose with different stakeholder groups, and refine it so that it resonates for the whole system.

Perhaps even more excitingly, through another constellation (‘Flow Map’), we can go on to test our offers and propositions for the areas of greatest alignment – and the “sweet spot” – between our purpose and the market or world. This can be deeply joyful work, where we feel directly the truth of Frederick Buechner’s maxim, that “our vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs”.

Using this process has helped clients and students trust their intuition and make bold and life-enriching moves, either within their main career, or towards community volunteering, citizens’ assemblies or environmental activism that sits alongside the day job (typically in corporate OD/HR or as external leadership & change coaches). As one coaching client put it, “working in this way has helped me find my heart and place in my work again”.

Bridging the Gaps: Soul, Role and the World’s Needs

Finding authentic purpose bridges many “gaps”, and has many benefits (which can only be briefly summarised here, though they deserve much fuller exploration).

  1. For Founders and sole traders it helps us tune into the market place and society and what the world and ’emerging future’ may need of us.
  2. For leaders and managers in large organizations, bringing our Leading Principles into our professional work helps us bridge the gap between our authentic self and the roles we take on – where many of us have to operate within fixed boundaries and expectations in our work. It may also help us find a strengthening alignment with the purpose of the organisation itself.
  3. For all of us, importantly, our purpose and principles can bridge the gap between our Being (who we are) and our Doing or functioning. All of us, at times can get caught up in activity – split off from who we are – so that we become a kind of doing “shell”. Since our purpose and principles stem from both the essence of who we really are, and also what we can embody and our function on the other, they can help resolve this painful split.
  4. And lastly, since our true purpose and principles are not just for us, but also for others and the world, this is a generative movement for all of us, allowing us to take our right place in the wider scheme of things (ecosystem) and to create what wants to flow through us. Authentic purpose opens the door to more authentic service.

These benefits of attunement and connection – between our heart and gifts, our place in systems, and the needs of the world and emerging future – point to the systemic function or ‘why’ of purpose itself.

Closing Reflections

The good news is that the process of finding (or renewing) our purpose is relatively easy. The trickier news is that embodying it, in order to harvest these benefits, is a more challenging prospect. In a follow-up part two to this article, on Embodying personal purpose, I will give my perspective on why this is so, and include some illustrative stories (from clients and my own).

However, although challenging, it’s a valuable and vital endeavour, perhaps especially in times of disruption like the current one. Although full of pain, grief and anxiety for many, this period of crisis and systemic movement also presents an opportunity for reflecting on and ‘sieving’ through what is essential to us, and may even invite us into a reset of direction about where we place our precious life energy.

There’s probably no going ‘back to normal’ after the current crisis, even if we wanted to. “We’re going into a different world – let’s go differently”, as Nora Bateson has put it. And let’s go with a deeper awareness of our connectedness, that the current context has certainly highlighted, and maybe helped us to remember. A systemic approach provides us – especially leaders and change coaches – with a highly effective way of navigating the seen and unseen elements of our connectedness, towards our best future possibilities.

At a personal level, using it to connect to our purpose can certainly help us ‘hold’ and strengthen ourselves, guide us through our challenges and attune to our right place with others as we cross the threshold into that different world.

1. Sarah Rozenthuler Powered by Purpose: How to engage and energise your people around great work (spring 2020, forthcoming) FT Pearson

A final note: I’m sharing this prototype of a book chapter (in two-part article form) as it may be resourcing or useful at this particular extraordinary threshold and time, and I’ll be glad if you found it so. May we all step forward and embody the best of what we have to bring, with courage, humility and kindness.
All views are available (as they say)! More than that, I welcome your feedback below – to support a collective inquiry, and my ongoing writing – and comments will be gratefully received and answered.

Thanks to Sarah Rozenthuler – as well as the participants at a workshop in 2017 – for the model co-creation, and other #wholepartners and colleagues Deborah Haskew, Josefina Erraruriz, Charlie O’Malley and Naomi Wilkinson for reading and providing feedback.

Although writing can point the way, the best way of getting to grips with this material is experientially, through an in-person workshop. The latter is impossible right now, but we are running an immersive online version of Leading from Our Hearts, and the Emerging Future: Deepening into Personal Purpose beginning in May, as a foundational part of our family of Systemic Leadership programmes:

(Note there are some 50% places for leaders and entrepreneurs under 35, as well as bursaries for people struggling with low income in the current situation).