71 - Elephant purpose

An Elephant Named “Purpose”

Searching for the weighty “why” of telos …and where to find her.

It was six men of Indostan,
to learning much inclined,
who went to see an elephant,
(though all of them were blind).
That each by observation,
might satisfy his mind.

After we follow the dialogue between these six blind men who, having each grabbed hold of the elephant, describe what they have encountered – a body mistaken for a wall, a tusk determined to be a spear, a trunk that is most certainly a snake. John Godfrey Saxe (retelling a classic Indian fable) closes his poem like this:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong.

In recent decades, many of us, backed by business and management theorists no less, have made valiant attempts to put words to the various missions, visions, values, CSR strategies and the like. They are helpful concepts, and have produced good results for companies and society.

But I wonder, have all those efforts been like the descriptions offered by those 6 blind men of Indostan from the poem? Have we been beholden to our own dim-sighted view of the smaller parts and connected appendages of an animal too big for our own boxes?

I think so.

Our blindness notwithstanding, business has long been tiptoeing around an elephant in the room, and lately she is beginning to make herself known. As we have begun to encounter and describe various parts of this elephant – what we have really been doing is rediscovering the role of “purpose-for-others” in business.

The Right Purpose Begets Meaning:

Lately, purpose has been the subject of much thought and discussion, and many are catching glimpses of her and recognizing the way she can impact business.

For example,

  • Dan Pink, in the thesis of his influential book, Drive, outlines fundamental internal motivations that mobilize employees. He names autonomy, mastery and purpose.
  • Deloitte CEO Punit Renjen introduced the results of a survey his firm recently conducted with these words, “organizations that focus beyond profits and instil a sense of purpose among employees are more likely to find long term success…. The majority of employees (68%) and executives (66%) believe businesses are not doing enough to create a sense of purpose and deliver meaningful impact.”
  • In a recent management meeting I attended, the CIO observed that his best talent never much mentions income as long as they are working on something meaningful.

From where I sit, it looks like the Harvard Business Review was correct in trumpeting, “meaning is the new money.” This desire for meaning is a uniquely human insistence, and we are restless until we find it. A multiplying throng of recruiters, marketers, employees, social activists, consumers and CEO’s voice this disquiet and desire for meaning—and you are likely among their number. But meaning is an opaque pursuit, hard to pin down.

What delivers meaning? Pursuing a clear purpose for others – a reason for being that serves others. That sort of purpose can be grasped – it is what I have referred to as telos. For those who want to locate her in business, she is fastened to two tethers—the company’s understanding of itself (its “best self) and its relationship to others (the social tension it is relevant to).

Telos: A Purpose for Others

In Canada, we have an immensely popular movement called “Me to We.” In three short words, Me to We captures the roots of human identity, the shifting pendulum of social values and our growing disquiet with individualism and the growing clamor for Purpose which I have spoken about in previous chapters. Thus, Me to We’s popularity as a movement and as a brand is not surprising.

At the same time, my colleagues at Ogilvy & Mather have discovered that something really important to a company lies at the intersection of these concepts of Me and We. Ogilvy’s “Big ideaL”—a theory for better understanding and describing the elephant named Telos—suggests that a company’s sense of itself (Me) is relevant to a tension or problem beyond its own boundaries (We). In other words, telos – a healthy purpose – is a balance of Me and We, not a movement from one to the other.

Since it is located at the overlap of Me and We, the telos of a company answers the question, “who are we in service to others?” As led by this question, we’ll seek out and describe more of this elephant named Telos, and what she looks like.

Every purposeful enterprise is built around an objective, an end goal—a telos, to borrow a Greek term—to put its best work into creating social value. It serves others outside of the enterprise. Profit is not a purpose in the sense of the word I am claiming. Neither is making the best and most recommended widget. Those are goals or intentions, but they are not a compelling reason for being.

A telos has 4 parts and must:

  1. Fulfill the selfless gene. Deep down, we all have a desire to do good for others. A telos scratches that almighty itch by delivering a social good for others, outside the company. Important caveat: serving owners and shareholders with profit growth or market penetration does not satisfy the selfless gene.
  2. Prove true as it is embodied. Good intentions are not enough. If they are not lived out, they are a manipulation, even a mask. A telos is true, and therefore trusted, because it is made alive by real people.
  3. Deliver meaning by striving for an innovative solution to a worthy problem. A telos is a big, “leave the world a better place” goal that offers significance to those who work toward it. Important caveat: merely creating economic value will not stand up as a worthy enough goal to deliver significance, especially for millennials.
  4. Unite people and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts. A telos is a uniting force that is both personal and communal.

Telos is the central concept of a strong corporate identity, it is the organization’s answer to the question, “who are we in service to others?”

As you read on, please keep the following in mind:

Telos does not claim, “this is where we are going, it will be great when we get there.” Telos asserts, “this is why we are here, join us.”

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