Some companies, such as Apple, seem to always get it right, and
it's not just because they have great designers, developers, and
markets. Lots of companies have these things. It's because they
have goals that are far bigger than the company and they let their
people pursue them. Apple just doesn't want to own the desktop, or
change the way music is listened to or how books are read. It wants
to change the world. It wants to change the way people interact not
just with each other, but with their stuff.
When your goals are that big, everything else is little. Conceiving
of a plan that is audacious in scope means that issues such as
executing on that plan are manageable. If you are changing the
world, and your job is to make sure each computer gets produced and
shipped on time, that's a small goal by comparison. And, small
goals get done.
Leaders have to understand this. If they can create a sense of
common purpose within their organization - so that people are
signed on to work together to achieve something big - then the
mundane, much smaller execution goals will be achieved.
But there is a catch. Leaders who create a sense of common purpose
within an organization need to get out of the way and let the
people who actually do the work, get it done. They have to give
people the authority to act. They have to give them the right to
own their own jobs.
Few leaders do that. Instead, they create big, audacious goals, and
then they micromanage their employees because they don't trust them
to execute. They metaphorically - and literally - stand behind
them, watch what they do, and criticize what they see as lapses.
Common purpose leadership is based on getting people excited about
doing something special. But it won't work unless the people
themselves are allowed to do their jobs.
When leaders second guess the people in their organizations or on
their teams, they create what Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case
Western Reserve University, calls "toxicity" in the work
environment. By telling people they have the power and ability to
change the world, and then tying their hands when they try to do
it, so much anxiety is created in the workplace that Boyatzis
thinks it can even make some people sick.
This is a real problem for leaders, many of whom rose through the
ranks glad-handing their superiors, while (to be honest)
mistrusting everybody else. And, when they do rise to positions of
authority, old habits die hard.
I've seen this happen in companies I've worked with. At one
financial organization that I consulted to, the leader of a major
business unit was a brilliant trader who rose through the
organization to direct his own group. People in his group made a
pile of money and believed wholeheartedly that their mission was
the change the world. But because this leader had a lot of mistrust
for the people on his team, he held the reins much too tightly. He
told people they were free to drum up new business, create new
relationships, or even dream up new financial products. But then he
reviewed everything they did and told them whether or not they
could go ahead with their plans - sometimes after the fact. Good
intentions on the part of a lot of team members were foiled because
of their leader's mistrust. And why not? When you start creating a
business relationship, and are told that a certain person or firm
is off limits, after the fact, it dampens your spirit.
Over time, people segregated themselves into two groups. One group
became demoralized. They simple sat around riding on the coattails
of the leader, picking up their bonuses (often for what other
people did) - knowing the gravy train would someday end.
The other group - to get what it wanted - flattered, misled, and
sometimes lied to the boss to get past his screen.
You can imagine what happened to this unhappy little crew. One half
of the group coasted, while the other half carried all of the
weight. One half was demoralized with their positions, while the
other half began to dislike themselves for getting ahead by bending
Over time, the performance of the team suffered, the bonuses waned,
and the company itself teetered - despite being led by a brilliant
visionary. Fixing this mess took more than a year.
My point in bringing this up is that leaders must trust the people
they lead. They must not be wary of them. That takes faith, but it
also takes getting to know the people on your team really well. It
takes giving them an increasing amount of freedom, and seeing what
happens. Those who do well in that environment are keepers - people
ready to change the world. On the other hand, those that fail
should profit from seeking work elsewhere. Black and white
decisions such as this may seem harsh, but they are how common
purpose teams succeed again and again.
Common purpose organizations are exciting places to visit and work
in. I've seen the excitement as it ripples through the air at
Apple. People at Apple, and at other common purpose organizations,
take what they do seriously. And, as a result, they achieve
But half-trusting team members is in many ways worse than not
trusting them at all.
In my view, building a common purpose organization requires some
things that are pretty basic. Set massively audacious goals, let
your teams accomplish them, and get out of the way. There is no
other way to do it.
Joel Kurtzman is the author of Common
Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve the
Extraordinary, on which this article is based.