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Jun 25, 2024

Mastering Common Purpose: 7 Essential Principles for Leaders to Inspire and Align Their Teams

Written by: Danny Kenny
Teammates climbing up stairs
Teammates climbing up stairs



Leadership Behaviors Needed in a Complex World


Common purpose (defined as the unifying goals, values, and strategies that transform a group of individuals into a committed, driven team) is the vital force that propels organizations to new heights. The organizations that can unite their employees around a shared "North Star" mission gain strategic focus, resilience, and a wellspring of innovation.  

And yet, all too often, this powerful alignment around a shared purpose and mission remains maddeningly elusive as teams succumb to the inertia of fragmented priorities and ingrained routines.  

Why do some leaders struggle to instill common purpose, even as they vocally champion its importance? 


It is not uncommon for a new leader to arrive with grand visions of ”how things ought to be around here.” But this strategy, a promise to regain the success of the past to secure the future, is rarely understood or uniformly supported across the organization. At McChrystal Group, we’ve seen this divide intensify when business units work on competing, siloed efforts rather than toward the collective goals of the organization. In fact, only 52% of employees surveyed in our database say when their team is executing multiple projects, leadership articulates which one should take priority to support organizational objectives. Such disparate projects create a misalignment of resources, making any pursuit of strategic objectives far less inefficient and ineffective than they could be. 

This disconnect frequently arises not at the senior executive level nor among the front-line ranks, but rather among the crucial middle managers spanning that divide. These leaders serve as the critical bridge between high-level vision setting and on-the-ground execution. Charged with both preserving existing operations and driving progressive change, they find themselves pulled in opposite directions. 

Take for instance Jessica, a director overseeing engineering at an aerospace company. At recent all-hands meetings, she passionately rallied her team around "redefining what's possible" through boundary-pushing innovation to "drive seamless production to meet our ambitious targets."  

A noble call to arms. 

But when it came to execution, Jessica's group calendar rapidly devolved into a Tetris game of obligatory check-ins, tiresome status updates, and ad-hoc fire drills – leaving little oxygen for the "out-of-the-box" thinking that drives creativity she professed to value. The big ideation session developed last quarter in a period of calm became just another 30-minute obligatory box to check, sandwiched between videoconferences covering supply chain issues and launch logistics. 

The inevitable result? Despite Jessica's genuine desires, the ideas proposed were too modest, too incremental, and too grounded in what was familiar and "safe" rather than the reimagination needed to exponentially increase production. 

The Benefits of a Unified Vision 

Before exploring the challenges and their solutions, it's important to appreciate what common purpose unlocks when done well:

  • Inspiration and Engagement: People crave work that holds deeper meaning beyond just punch-in, punch-out obligations. An inspiring, relevant purpose fosters personal investment and commitment.  

  • Strategic Alignment: With a clear "North Star," it becomes easier for teams to evaluate whether initiatives are aligned and prioritize what truly matters most. 

  • Resilience: When bumps inevitably arise, a strong sense of common purpose provides the "why" that lets people persist through adversity.  

  • Innovation: Diverse perspectives unified by a shared vision create an environment ripe for new ideas and solutions. 

Teammates resisting change

Understanding Resistance

So if common purpose yields such benefits, why do some leaders struggle to instill it within their organizations?  


  • Lack of Clarity: Some leaders fail to translate high-level strategies and aspirations into tangible, relatable purposes that connect with people's day-to-day realities.  

  • Fear of Constraints: There can be a misperception that a defined purpose will paradoxically limit flexibility and innovation rather than enhance it. 

  • Comfort with the Status Quo: In large organizations, it's easy for inertia and routine to take over absent a compelling case for change.  

  • Inability to Persevere: Fostering lasting common purpose requires continuous reinforcement — a level of vigilance many leaders underestimate. 

Principles for Achieving Common Purpose

For leaders seeking to tap into the power of common purpose, these 7 guiding principles can help: 

  1. Clearly Define the Mission: Effective leaders go beyond aspiration statements to clearly define the overarching "why" that gives work meaning. They provide a vivid picture of the desired destination and the principles that will guide the organization's journey. This "North Star" serves as a filter for all decisions - if an action or initiative does not propel the organization towards that mission, it is deprioritized.
  2. Make it Relevant Across All Levels: The mission must resonate from the frontlines to the executive suite. Leaders should engage representatives from all levels and roles to ensure the language and focus areas create a collective sense of purpose that every individual can connect to their specific circumstances. The frontline perspectives are crucial for grounding the high-level strategy in reality.
  3. Provide Commander's Intent: Even with a clearly defined mission, employees can be confused by specific taskings or decisions if they don't understand the broader context. Leaders should take a page from military doctrine and provide the "Commander's Intent" - explicitly communicating the organizational objectives and strategic considerations behind certain requests. This allows teams to exercise disciplined initiative within the leader's overarching vision.
  4. Constantly Communicate and Reinforce: Defining a clear purpose is just the starting point. Leaders must continually reinforce the mission through consistent communication and modeling of desired behaviors. Make it part of rhythms like team meetings, town halls, performance reviews, and operating processes. When executing important initiatives, directly tie the efforts back to how they ladder up to the larger purpose.
  5. Model the Mindset: Leaders must embody the desired attitudes and behaviors that exemplify living the common purpose. People take cues from actions more than words alone. And as a leader, you are under constant observation to see where your ‘do’ differs from your ‘say’. If the expectations you set, in alignment with the organization’s Common Purpose, match your actions, you create a standard that your people have no choice but to follow.
  6. Foster Personal Ownership: It's not enough for employees to understand the mission - there must be a deep, personal sense of ownership. Leaders should provide context about why the purpose matters, and facilitate discussions about how teams and individuals can uniquely contribute. Recognize and celebrate examples of people exhibiting the mission-centric mindset and behaviors.
  7. Remain Vigilant: Even well-established purposes can drift over time as an organization expands or external forces evolve. Leaders must stay vigilant about maintaining alignment through pulse checks, open dialogues and tough conversations. If the purpose needs revisiting, own that pivotal decision rather than letting it erode into meaningless jargon. Institute rhythms to check alignment, have tough reset conversations if needed, and continually reinforce through deeds.

Unlock the Power of Common Purpose 

Common purpose done well serves as the organizational "glue" that aligns and motivates high-caliber talent towards achieving extraordinary results. When every team member sees how their role creates collective impact in service of an inspirational purpose, it unlocks a powerful unity that propels an organization to new heights. Nurturing this common purpose is an ongoing leadership obligation, but the payoff is an engaged, innovative workforce striving towards shared success. While not an easy undertaking, diligent leaders who make this a priority position their teams for sustainable, long-term success. 

Interested in learning more about strengthening your Common Purpose with members of your team or across the organization to drive engagement and effective execution? Connect with us here


Leadership Behaviors Needed in a Complex World