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The Power of Purpose and Belief

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was in town recently to address a conference. I had the privilege of being in his presence. It’s not that he’s an imposing figure, this winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s actually quite short, has no swagger in his walk or his talk, and smiles easily and often. Yet his stories, related in an unembellished, conversational tone with a touch of self-deprecating humor, created waves of power. Although there were about 1400 people there, his presence was large enough to encompass all, most like myself hanging on his every word.

What, I wondered, is the key to this captivating power? And what can I learn about leadership from this Ghandi-like post-modern hero?

In the early 1980’s, he said, the world was predicting a bloodbath in South Africa. The strengthening resolve of the vast majority Black population was on a collision course with the entrenched white minority. No one, it seemed, could foresee anything but a tragic, violent conflagration.

Into this morass of pessimism, Desmond Tutu injected a clear vision of a post-apartheid South Africa: united and flourishing, both races building a new democratic nation. He held out for others the conviction that the tension-filled standoff could and would be resolved through people learning to listen to one another, to let go of intransigence, entrenched judgment, hurt, anger, and the particular kind of lethal power that each held over the other. Tutu’s belief in this future was so pure and deep that others, almost in spite of themselves, began to believe the vision as well. He maintained connection with both sides as he appealed to the hearts of leaders, not in a scolding, critical way, but always by invitation, always with the conviction that he was eliciting the very best of who they were.

It was this energized vision and belief in people that swayed the moment. Because he was so uncompromisingly clear in his core values and beliefs, there was no anxiety to cloud the message, no static generated by ego or self doubt or doubt about others. This non-anxious “presence” and purpose were the keys to saving a nation from tragic self-destruction.

Now surely the challenges of today’s organizational leaders pale in comparison to what this man faced, right?

Maybe in scale, but not in essence: A CEO with two warring departments faces a similar situation. This is fundamentally a challenge to the organization’s mission. It is also a challenge to the values and beliefs about how this organization will function. The CEO could side with one party because they seem right on the issue, or side with the other party because they hold more power. Or she can continue to build an honest relationship with both sides, holding out a belief that this can and will be worked out and inviting both sides to listen more respectfully, less selfishly. That CEO risks the wrath of either or both departments for not deciding in their favor. He risks being labeled a naïve idealist, a weak-kneed coward. But these judgments evaporate over time as the leader’s steadfast convictions are held.

On the part of the leader, this takes an unwavering commitment to a purpose beyond his/her own ego gratification, and beyond the desire for peace at any price. It’s a twofold message that is conveyed: “I need you to work this out; and I believe that you will work it out.” This message, delivered with ruthless compassion, calls the others to a level of maturity and higher functioning. It’s an invitation to them to tap into the very best of who they are as human beings.

In his book “Leadership from the Inside Out”, Kevin Cashman describes this as Purpose Mastery. The leader, working first from her own internal clarity of purpose and beliefs, can then call others to that same standard. When the leader combines this with a genuine belief in those he leads, a powerful surge is created.

The leader’s clear commitment to a purpose, as well as a belief that these people will rise to the occasion, becomes the catalyst for their growth. The leader in effect calls them out of a self-centered protectionism, a turf mentality, and insists that they reconcile the differences. He or she doesn’t settle it for them in an anxious overreaction, but places the responsibility squarely on their shoulders, with an affirmation of their ability to find a way.

Desmond Tutu, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., exemplify a leadership that is purpose-based and belief-powered. They knew their own purpose and values, invited others to join in their vision, and believed in the goodness of those who responded, a powerful combination.

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