Leadership Confusions: Function or Purpose


Purpose is the indispensable bridge between function at the bottom and vision at the top.

When I designed the Mission-Function Vertical Axis, I was seeking for a way to demonstrate visually the connection between the "lowest" function in an organization and the mission that presides at the top. Today, I am considering some points on the continuum where confusion causes arrested development of the organization and can lead to serious problems.

The Leadership Confusion we’re looking at is that between function and purpose. The mixup between tactics and strategy attacks at the top of an organization and eats away at its long range success. When function forgets purpose the attack is more basic, right where the rubber hits the road-at the very place where your organization touches your customers and/or constituency.

Ever wonder why the "first contact" folks in some organizations, such as receptionists and parking attendants sometimes seem so contrary to its stated goals and advertised persona? It's actually quite simple and can be devastating. Those people who perform the organization's basic public contact jobs clearly know what they do. They just don't remember why. And that is exactly the problem. Bad first impressions are most often the result of a gap between function and purpose.

Example: Old Uncle Bob, as he is known, has cooked hot dogs for the church youth group for 25 years. Faithfully. He has never missed a Wednesday night in all those years. The youth pastor advises Uncle Bob that the kids have requested they switch to pizza. Bob is furious and threatens to quit. The youth pastor is stunned and confused. He needn't have been. Bob is still doing "what" he has done for years but he has lost track of the "why." The purpose of the hot dogs was not to give Bob a meaningful place to volunteer. It was to create a fun, wholesome atmosphere that made teens feel loved and cared for. This year, pizza says that, but Bob won't change because it has become about Bob.

Your paid staff and volunteers, especially those who deal directly with the public, must constantly be reminded why they do what they do. How do the greeters at the door, the parking lot attendants, and the receptionist who answers the phone further the vision? The leader has to know the answer to be sure. But real sustainable success comes when the lowest level functionaries in your organization can tell you exactly why what they do leads to the accomplishment of that vision.

Function is important. Obviously your folks have to do what they do. Purpose is what keeps them on track with the promise of your organization. The bank teller who does her job but is rude to the customers is that bank's worst problem. Worse than interest rates, or regulators, or bad loans. She has fallen into the gap between function and purpose and she will take customers over the side with her. The angry parking lot volunteer at a local church has already nullified everything that will happen in the service that day before visitors can even get in the door.

In training staff and volunteers for function, never fail to connect it to the vision. The indispensable bridge between function at the bottom and vision at the top is purpose.

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