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How Purpose Delivers Significance

Why the ancient concept of telos will help us rediscover significance in the art of business – it is the twilight of dehumanization.

The large auditorium was nearly full, and the moment had a certain air of importance because it contained nearly 2,000 employees who were gathered to hear the CEO speak. The speech outlined the company’s recent accomplishments, trumpeted new share price valuations and market capitalization, and brought news about a dazzlingly bright economic future yet to come. The leader was certainly excited about his material and tried to draw his audience closer, but despite his evident enthusiasm, they seemed disinterested, even bored. They sat quietly in their chairs, as if waiting for something to capture their attention and imagination. The numbers just weren’t cutting it.

I knew this audience. In fact, I had just been with them at a community service day some weeks earlier. There, I had seen how energetic, happy, and engaged they could be in tackling a shared task—or, more specifically, a service task. The vastly different responses by these same people rang in my head like a discordant tone. I thought, “their response to this talk would have been entirely different if he was addressing something they found significant.” Somehow I was pretty certain that, no matter how strong, the company’s anticipated market capitalization just wasn’t going to deliver.

So where is significance found?

As is often the case, one good place to turn is to the great thinkers of the past. Three millennia ago, Aristotle proposed that telos is an end that guides all natural things, of which he delineated three types.

  1. The first, physical matter, has the telos to obey physical laws, and thus Aristotle suggested that it finds its proper end in mechanical consistency. The stone falls to earth in the same way, every time, because its nature is subject to a physical law.
  2. Biological life forms, however, evolve in variation and adapt to suit their habitat, and so their telos is to grow and to fit within a particular niche.
  3. Lastly, Aristotle suggested that a telos of the highest order things – humans – involves the experience of positive human relationships. A human telos relates to friendship – friendship that is chosen and mutually beneficial to advance human life.

Human telos involves acting for the good of others, demonstrating reciprocity toward them. In doing so, we find the fulfillment of doing what is uniquely human (isolated examples of animal altruism notwithstanding). It isn’t easy, but it is good and right.

We, as humans, are beings who can exercise self-recognition and choose from a list of possible actions or behaviours. By extension, we have the potential (and the responsibility!) to humanize the organizations we run by moving them to reflect a human telos. In the same way, we can dehumanize those organizations if we cause them to reflect only a lesser order telos. Business – this complex human relational institution – demands a telos of the highest order of things.

Human beings deserve businesses that seek human ends (telos) – like relationship and the good of others.

Those kinds of businesses can exist. In fact, they are being brought to life as companies like Warby Parker, Interface, your friendly local landscaping business that preserves damaged habitats, or the fair-trade chocolatier across town.

Businesses that reflect a human telos look after the planet, attend to neighbors, re-set injustice, and pursue all manner of positive contribution. In doing so, and in simply being themselves, they connect us with a purpose that lies beyond the narrow boundaries of ourselves and beyond mere economics. This is the refreshing territory where deepest meaning and significance is found.

And yet, seduced by the purely rational tenor of the modern world, many leaders (and their businesses) cannot find their way to the fertile ground beyond what we have always known. For decades, the art of business has been hijacked, held hostage in the drab reductionism of statistically measurable profitability. By forcing business to function solely as a means to create different methods for manufacturing cash, we have reduced the complex web of human relationships that compose businesses into mere mechanisms and machine. This underscores the fact that companies are simply inanimate legal constructs. Without a clear vision of what companies could be about, we’ve spent generations worth of energy trying to shoehorn business into delivering a set of outcomes that reflect a biological telos, when we could have been pushing it to deliver on more human ones.

more than just consumption or transaction, they will deliver meaning and significance. And in return, we will relate to them, and offer our loyalty (financial and otherwise), our creativity, our support for their intentions, and even our years and lifetimes of work. But how do these types of organizations come about?

In order to rediscover the ability of businesses to deliver significance, which is found in the territory of human telos— where the importance of positive human relationship is recognized once again — leaders will need to have a close handle on the telos of their companies. But more specifically, the corporate embrace of a true human telosis achieved only by the people who compose it. In other words, you and your co-workers hold the key to bringing a human telos to life. So what telos do you envision for your company (or what one does it already have that needs to be more clearly articulated and lived out), and what steps will you take to bring it to life?

But beware of false prophets. Just as ‘greenwashing’ accompanied the rise of sustainability, we can find plenty of ‘purpose-washing’ underway where a catchy tag-line makes a promise with no serious intent to deliver.

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