Strategic Leadership Journal
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  Finding Purposeful Focus
  Kenneth Sill

The Importance of Purpose and Focus

          In order to achieve maximum effectiveness and sustained motivation at work, both leaders and employees need to understand and apply individual life purpose and focus in their efforts, at the point where they best advance the goals of the organization.  This need to focus based on the specific purpose of an individual is heightened by the increasing pressures on available time in the workplace.  This article will examine the need to encourage leaders and employees to move to that point within the organization which best uses their motivational design, abilities, life purpose, and areas of strength.  The point where all these factors converge for the individual leader or employee is called their place of purposeful focus by this author.  When all those factors are clearly focused and matched at the point of purposeful focus in the organization – where the individual fits best and adds the most value to the objectives of the organization—then their effectiveness is increased and stress is often reduced in the process.  The organization also gains by having a highly motivated leader or employee and increasing their chance of retaining key employees for the long term. This article outlines two primary steps that lead to achieving this focus; (a) clarifying life purpose, motivational design, and strengths; and then (b) focusing the energies of the individual to accomplish that purpose where they can best further the mission of the organization.

Clarifying Life Purpose Increases Effectiveness and Reduces Stress

          Most of the observations in this article are based on over 20 years of human resource development consulting through a company called Life Design (LD) founded by this author, working with two primary types of clients:  leadership teams that need to understand the individual strengths of each leader to achieve greater effectiveness; and mid-career professionals who have tried the standard question-answer assessments and need something much more accurate and individualized to guide them as they continue to focus their next career steps.  LD has found that significant stress occurs when someone is functioning outside their key strengths, areas of motivation, and purposeful focus.   However, when they are in the right place in the organization, many people experience a renewal of energy and motivation, much like the “second wind” that runners experience.  Mackey and Tonkin (2005) state that “no one is born with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values required to live a rich and rewarding life, we must seek these attributes through continual learning and self-improvement.  The cycle of self-improvement begins with the recognition of our strengths and weaknesses and continues with careful examination of their impact on our work, relationships, and overall quality of life” (p. 179).

          Other writers in the field of leadership support what has been discovered in the “applied laboratory” at Life Design—that leaders and individuals are significantly more effective with a clear understanding of purpose and focus.  James Lucas, in his insightful book, The Passionate Organization, emphasizes how important it is to match the individual passion (motivation) of employees to that place in the organization where they are most motivated and in the place where they can add the most toward accomplishing the mission of the organization.  Lucas (1999) states that “The drive to accomplish is the passion we feel when we are well matched with the work we are doing – when our talents and interests coincide with those required by the job. Most people aren’t matched up very well at all. But when someone is, get out of the way. The performance – and the related learning – will skyrocket” (p. 5).  However, the difficulty most individuals experience is in finding an effective way to accurately discover their intrinsic motivations and clarify where they fit best in the world of work or in a particular organization.  According to client feedback,  the life interview approach developed by LD in 1989 (which has been continually improved over time), in which the key strengths and areas of motivation of an individual are clarified based on actual information from their life, is consistently more accurate and individualized than any assessment they have taken before. LD believes that God has put a clear design in each person’s life to draw them toward their life purpose (see Psalm 139:13-17), and has found with hundreds of clients over the years that this design can be clearly determined based on real-life data about that person drawn out in the interview process.  It is in finding and fulfilling that purpose that most people find the greatest fulfillment and effectiveness.  Taking the time to try to discern this purpose is encouraged by Ellis and Burkett (1993) when they say, “As you consider your work and career choices, remember your purpose in life. If you haven’t written out a purpose statement yet, we urge you to spend some time contemplating this most important of life’s questions” (p. 89).

Increase Your Results through Further Focus within Your Purpose

          Covey (2007) gives another piece of advice that helps someone take the second step - beginning to further focus one’s efforts within one’s overall purpose.  He makes the distinction between a “sphere of concern” (where a person can’t really affect the outcome) and a “sphere of influence” (where a person is in a position to affect the outcome in a major way).  His point is that people should focus their efforts on their sphere of influence, because that is where they can make the most difference and where their sphere of influence will increase as they take focused action within that sphere.  Conversely, spending too much time in their sphere of concern drains a lot of energy, usually increases stress level, and causes little change in one’s organization or in the world.  A more productive approach is to focus within the sphere of influence – that sphere where people have a sense of purpose and the ability and functional influence (authority) to make the most difference.

          Rick Warren (2002) also emphasizes the importance of focusing within one’s life purpose when he says, “Knowing your purpose focuses your life.  It concentrates your effort and energy on what’s important.  You become effective by being selective” (p. 32).  The difficulty that most individual career-planning clients have is narrowing the focus to something that will remain motivating to them long-term, use their natural abilities and strengths, and provide an adequate living in the process.  The goal of Life Design with individuals is to help them find the place where their purpose, passion, and provision converge, and encourage them to move toward that point.  This is also the essence of the objective when working with leaders and the leadership team. To effectively accomplish that goal, LD uses the life-interview process to clarify motivations, purpose, optimum working environment, and other factors for individuals and leaders.

          The author’s long-time friend and mentor, Jim Moore (president of The Strategic Way, a consulting company), has proposed a way for organizations to support this further focus and the matching function as Step Five of his six major strategic steps to organizational and individual vitality.  He calls this step “Career Matching” and it necessarily follows earlier steps in the process such as establishing the vision for the organization, deciding on the best strategic ways to divide and manage the work, and providing guidelines and assessment processes to configure the right functional teams to support the strategy.  Step Five is comprised of finding the right team leaders and members to handle the work, and encouraging managers to match individuals to teams based on understanding their individual motivations and strengths.  This small but tremendously important piece in the placement and development of key employees and leaders in the organization is often overlooked or done in a minimal and unplanned way where all the weight for driving the career movement is placed on the individual.  While the individual should be the main driver of this movement, the organization can be a supportive partner in the process and empower and encourage people to get to the place in the organization where they can add the most value and remain motivated without a lot of external motivation techniques such as financial incentives.  This does not mean that companies shouldn’t seek to compensate employees well or minimize the power that external motivators can have (such as recognition for a job well done) in the workplace.  However, LD has found that the power of internal (intrinsic) motivation is critical - so it is important to encourage organizations to assist people in determining and moving to the place where they have the highest intrinsic motivation and ability to further the mission of the organization – knowing that this will be mutually beneficial to the success of the organization and the individual.  Past President Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower stated this general point another way: "Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it."  This only occurs when you match their internal motivation to the place in the organization where both factors are true:  they fit best there and can move the organizational goals forward.

Example of Focusing Key Leaders According to Fit and Motivation

          Here is one example of a consulting situation where the information derived from the LD life interview process was used to provide information about individual leaders and increase effectiveness and reduce strain in a situation where working relationships in the leadership team were experiencing significant stress. LD consulted a large building company some years ago that was led by three brothers and a cousin.  At the initial point of involvement, it was primarily the “blood is thicker than water” dynamic that was still holding them together.  In a genuine desire to balance the leadership load in a fair way, they had arrived at a point where all four were equally involved in each division of the business – and this was causing some real frustration. After doing the life interview assessment for each member of the leadership team, it was clear that they had very distinct and different strengths and motivations.  One brother loved working with the subcontractors and had a strong motivation to see immediate physical results from his efforts, and overseeing the building process met this need.  Another brother had earned a Masters in business with an emphasis in marketing, and the LD process confirmed he was motivated and gifted to lead those sides of the business, and each of the other two had distinct strengths in different areas. 

          In summary, the process was able to clarify their strengths and confirm something they may have known internally already: It is better to follow your internal motivational design and give your strength to that area of the organization where you have the most passion and ability while leaving the other sectors of the business to those whose strengths match there.  Together with the leadership team, LD set up a system that still allowed all the leaders to have limited input to the different sectors, but established a clear leader for each sector who carried the primary authority for decisions and for applying the overall mission to the work of that division. After making this change, the business took off and family relationships that had been frayed to the breaking point were restored as the business gained new vitality and success from that point forward.  In essence, each leader was more fully empowered in the area where their leadership and motivational design had the greatest “fit” to the environment and needs of that division.  This resulted in reduced stress overall, greater effectiveness, and better working relationships in the separate divisions of the company.  The primary contribution LD made to the leaders and the organization was developing and applying a tool to accurately assess intrinsic motivations so they could clearly see their place of greatest fit in the organization. Jansen et. al. (2009) emphasize the importance of correct fit in the organization from the results of their study of 284 self-employed individuals. In this study Jansen et. al. relate “fit is a stressor at the intersection of the person and the environment. The cornerstone of fit theory, Person–Environment fit (Edwards & Harrison, 1993), posits that misfit between a person and his or her environment leads to psychological, physiological, and behavioral strain (Kristof-Brown et al., 2005)” (p. 290).

          To summarize, the primary points are (a) one will be much more fulfilled and experience greater effectiveness and lower stress if they are giving their energies where they have a clear sense of purpose and are a “motivational match” to the functions, (b) as they focus further, they become more effective by being selective, and   (c) the internal motivations of an individual can be determined with accuracy (the primary new information given in this article).  The consulting experience of this author and the research of other authors indicate that these steps will bring reduced stress, greater fulfillment, and increased success in the life of an individual.  Jim Moore often reminds leaders that “A goal without a plan is only a wish” – so plan out the necessary steps to move toward a point of  purposeful focus.  Obtain perspectives and advice from others, remembering the encouragement from the book of Proverbs that “victory is won through many advisers” (Proverbs 11:14 TNIV).


Ken Sill has served as an adjunct professor of business at Roberts Wesleyan College since 2005, where he has taught courses in Human Resource Development, Change Management, and Leadership Ethics.  Having obtained a B.S. in Human Resource Management/ILR from Cornell University and an M.S. in Human Resource Development from the Rochester Institute of Technology, he was a human resource manager during the first part of his career and is currently president and senior consultant at Life Design, a consulting company he founded that works with leadership team effectiveness as well as individual career consulting for mid-career professionals.  You can learn more about the focus of the consulting practice at or contact him at