The Challenge of Ronin: Purpose without Context

Our purpose is in our work. Purpose is not an abstraction or an idea. Purpose is an impact you have on others and arises in the specific context of that work. The place to go looking to develop purpose or to put it into action is in that context and for benefit of a specific group of others.

The ronin of Japanese history were samurai who had lost their feudal masters. Without their place in a hierarchical society built around loyalty and respect, they existed in disgrace and wandered seeking work. Deprived of a feudal context, ronin lost their purpose.

Discussing writing blogposts on Twitter, Andrew Jacobs made the interesting comment that unpublished draft were like ronin – purpose without context.

That comment feels true of my many unpublished drafts. They didn’t make it to publication because something was lacking, usually a clear point and impact of the post but often the right environment for the post to be received. While time can solve one or other of these issues by chance, creating that match of purpose and context usually takes effort.

Much discussion of purpose at work is equally devoid of context. So many organisational purpose statements don’t describe the specific benefits to a group of people or even much guidance as to the work that bringfs that benefit about. Like a contextless draft, these corporate purpose statements roam from organisation to organisation in search of a work and in search of a master.

Employee engagement is specific not abstract. It exists for one employee at a time in the context of their work. If you want to influence engagement through a sense of purpose, you need to be specific enough to enable employees to discover the benefits of their work for the organisation, its clients and community.

I say discover advisedly. Purpose comes from within to benefit others. Purpose cannot be generalised or imposed. Each person will find significance in their work. The role of organisational leaders to help that discovery and alignment around shared benefits.

Posters aren’t a path to purpose. At best they are contextless drafts for employees. Without context we don’t understand or value the messages. The value of purpose for employees, organisations and their clients comes from the conversations in the work that bring meaningful context.

Purpose is in the work. Leaders need to start there and bring valuable conversations to light to provide employees with richer context on their work and help them find their purpose.

Only then can the ronin of the corporate world stop roaming.

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