Skip to content

Research Hub Logo

Purpose and leadership in education and beyond

4 min read

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging leaders to step up like never before. Senior leaders of government, healthcare, schools and business are in the spotlight – but the need for leadership does not stop with them. People everywhere can accept the challenge of leadership, the challenge to step up in their community, workplace or home and be a force for good at a difficult time.

There have already been some great examples: young people who have moved whole nations to #clapforourcarers, headteachers delivering food parcels, artists who have found new ways to create and inspire, neighbours who have mobilised community support and parents who have embarked on new adventures in home education. These examples highlight a central aspect of leadership: purpose.

Richard Lieder, one of the world’s most successful executive coaches, describes purpose as ‘the deepest dimension within us – our central core or essence – where we have a profound sense of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Purpose is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is a source of energy and direction.’ (Lieder, 1997, p. 1)

Most of us entered education because we have a strong desire to help young people flourish and achieve their potential. Yet we can lose sight of that dream over the years and become overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands of the job. This is concerning, because purpose is crucial to wellbeing. Having a sense of meaning and purpose in life is one of Su, Tay and Diener’s (2014) ‘core dimensions of psychological wellbeing’, which combines and develops the most prominent theories of wellbeing from psychology into seven dimensions. We need purpose if we are to succeed in education and arguably, one of the main goals of education leaders should be to encourage and grow flourishing teachers. This is critical not only for potentially helping with the recruitment and retention of our teachers, but also for the quality of education we are able to provide.

The impact of purpose

A professor at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson (2018), examined the impact of purpose by looking at the performance of cardiac surgery teams as they learnt a new system for operating on hearts. It was an ideal situation to examine why some teams perform better and learn faster than other teams, because surgical teams used the same protocols and technology and received the same training programme for the new procedure. She looked at 660 patients across 16 medical centres. If you had to pick out which team would perform the best you might have looked at which surgeons had the most experience, or which teams had the most impressive educational background. Surprisingly, these were not the determining factors of high performance. It was the teams who focused on: (a) how much the new procedure was helping the patients; (b) how their role was contributing to the success of the operation (whatever role that was); and (c) the excitement of doing something new in medicine, who significantly outperformed teams that had more impressive education and experience.

The most successful teams also felt psychologically safe to question each other, even if they were the most junior, because they all felt valued members of the group: another factor that enhances how meaningful people find their work. These results, showing the importance of a sense of purpose, have been demonstrated in different contexts. In another experiment, students were asked to reflect on the purpose behind what they were studying. Incredibly, this small action led students to double the amount of time they spent studying for an upcoming exam. They worked harder on tedious maths problems (even when given the option to watch entertaining videos instead) and their reports and grades improved (Edmondson, 2018). When we asked Edmondson for her top piece of advice on finding purpose, she said the key is incredibly simple – you have to help people answer the question of why what they do matters.

As leaders it is therefore critical that we clarify our own sense of purpose and help others to work out why what they do matters. We aim to do this in our free online course ‘Leading and Flourishing in Difficult Times’, which Edmondson contributed to. One exercise that we use in our leadership courses for aspiring middle leaders is to ask them to spend fifteen minutes answering the following questions:

  • Why did you go into teaching?
  • Has this motivation for teaching changed?
  • If so, how and why?
  • What kind of young adults do you want develop?
  • What will they be like?
  • How will they live their lives?


We then suggest that they ask the same questions to their teams and together create a vision for why what they are doing matters. Leadership expert Simon Sinek, in his book Start with the Why (2011) points out that many leaders focus on what they do, whereas great leaders (whether that be Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or successful companies such as Zappos and Apple) focus on why they do it. They focus on the ‘why’, the ‘how’ and then the ‘what’, rather than the other way around.

In education, we need to ensure that we are inspiring and equipping both students and teachers, not just those in formal leadership positions, to flourish and take action despite (and even because of) the difficult times we are facing.

One way we have tried to achieve this recently at Wellington College is through co-hosting, with Future Foundations, an organisation that designs and delivers training programmes for teachers and young people, the Global Social Leaders Festival. Focusing on youth social action in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the day involved a range of participants, from university lecturers to teenage activists, from 63 countries across five different continents. It included a special message from Ban Ki Moon, former UN Secretary General, to encourage young people to keep on taking action. Hosted virtually, the day was so powerful because it highlighted the importance of purpose in our lives.

In these difficult times, it is more important than ever that we look after our own and others’ wellbeing by re-connecting with purpose. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson (cited in Jackson Brown Jr, 2000, p. 132), ‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.’

The authors explore the ideas in this article further in their book, Leader: Know, love and inspire your people. Carmarthen, UK: Crown House Publishing.

  • Edmondson A (2018) The Fearless Organisation. London: Wiley
  • Jackson Brown Jr H (2000) Life's Instructions for Wisdom, Success, and Happiness. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press.
  • Leider R (1997) The Power of Purpose. London: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Sinek S (2011) Start with Why. London: Penguin
  • Su R, Tay L and Diener E (2014) The development and validation of the Comprehensive Inventory of Thriving (CIT) and the Brief Inventory of Thriving (BIT). Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being 6(3): 251-279.
0 0 votes
Please Rate this content
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Other content you may be interested in