How Purpose Delivers Significance
Chris Houstonon 18 July, 2014 at 05:07
The large auditorium was nearly full, and because it contained nearly 2,000 employees who were gathered to hear the CEO speak, the moment had a certain air of importance. The speech outlined the company’s recent accomplishments, trumpeted new share price valuations, and brought news about a dazzlingly bright economic future yet to come. He was attempting to create excitement and to draw his audience closer, but the audience seemed content to flirt with distraction. They sat quietly, waiting for something, or so it seemed to me. I knew this audience. In fact, I had just been with them at a community service day, and there I had seen how energetic, happy, and engaged they could be in tackling a shared task—or, more specifically, a service task. Their response to a talk by the CEO would have been entirely different if he had addressed something they found significant. The company’s market capitalization just wasn’t going to cut it.
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, or purpose, is an end that guides all things, of which he delineated three kinds of nature.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
We, as humans, are beings who can exercise self-recognition and choose from a list of possible actions or behaviors, and so by extension, have the potential to dehumanize when we (or by extension, the organizations we run), reflect a telos of biological things. Alternatively, we can humanize, by reflecting a human telos.
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.
Today, much of business has become dehumanizing. Seduced by the purely rational tenor of today’s world, many of our businesses (and their leaders) cannot find their way to the fertile ground beyond the drab reductionism of statistically measurable profitability. They continue to attempt to evolve different methods to manufacture cash—an orientation that reduces the complex web of human relationships that businesses are made of into mere systems of a mechanism.
We’ve spent decades trying to shoehorn business, a complex human relational institution— and so one that ought to claim a human telos—into a set of desired responses that can only be described as those which follow from a biological telos. That insistence hijacks the art of business for dehumanizing use.
Human beings deserve businesses that reflect a more human telos, institutions that exist in relationship with and for the good of others. TWEET THAT!
These sorts of businesses look after the planet, attend to neighbors, re-set injustice, and pursue all manner of positive contribution. In so doing, 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.
By leading businesses back to the realm of human telos— where the significance of positive human relationship is recognized once again—our elephant named Purpose will create corporations that are not human but are fully human institutions. These re-humanized businesses will offer us something of meaning and significance, not mere consumption or transaction. And in return, we will relate to them, and offer support for their intentions, our loyalty (financial and otherwise) and even our hours and lifetimes of work.
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.