The Purpose Driven Leader: Joe Lieberman - Purpose or Politics?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • C. Clinton Sidle Founding Director, Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University

As a student and mentor of leadership for many years, one of my driving ambitions has always been to find what stirs people not only to succeed--but also to make a positive contribution to the world. How can we inspire leaders "to do well while doing good," in ways that stick and do not attenuate over time? My own experience and study after study show that the most successful leaders, and the truly great ones, balance their personal ambition with a dedication to a greater cause--what is known as a purpose driven leader. Some leaders may get by in being overly self-interested in the short run, but not over the long haul. If you look at the litany of derailed business and political leaders over the last decade, the one thing they have in common is overly self-interested ways of being. Check it out for yourself.

Take Wall Street as an example: Its purpose is to serve its customers and the American economy by providing well-functioning capital markets for producing goods, services, and innovation; but over the last decade, banks lost much of their liquidity by over-investing in risky assets to making their executives rich. Wall Street leaders lost their sense of purpose, and their actions led to the crashing of our economy. Tuesday's New York Times has an article, for example, on how Goldman Sachs' traditional ethos of customer service has faded in favor of simply making money. In contrast, Steve Friedman, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, recently spoke at Cornell's Johnson School and said that while the truly great leaders on Wall Street are driven to make money, they also are motivated to serve something greater--a purpose other than themselves. As Henry Ford once said, "Any business that is just about making money is a poor kind of business."

Now let's look at Joe Lieberman: His purpose is to serve as an elective representative of the constituency of his state. Constituents in that state favor the public healthcare option, but Lieberman just announced he is against the Medicare buy-in version of that plan--even though he supported it just three months ago. Why? Self-interest, plain and simple. Rather than to serve his elected purpose, he feathers his nest with large contributions from rich insurance companies in his state with pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington. He also gets to pay back liberal voters who refused to support him when he lost his primary in 2005. In waiting to the last minute, he has hijacked the process and magnified his power and influence as never before. As a result, he has made his position about himself and not about the people he serves.

What's the real reason our political process is so maddening? Our elected officials put the interests of their party, and their own re-election, above everything else. So we get gridlock and watered down healthcare bills at best. It's a sad state in our democratic process when one man can derail legislation for his own personal gain or thwart the public good for sake of special interests.

We need a new kind of leader, ones that are more purpose-driven.

Early on in the program I direct at Cornell's Johnson School, I ask students to develop personal mission statements through a process of several reflective exercises. Almost without fail, what they come up with statements that lead them to want to make a positive impact on the world. One of them reads, "I will work for the success and betterment of myself, my family, my community, my nation, and my world. I will wake up every day wondering how I can do this. I will work hard to learn as much as I can, because with knowledge and understanding comes influence and strength. I will stay true to my beliefs. Looking back on life, I will be proud of what I've done, who I've spent time with, and how I've spent my time. If I have achieved this, I have achieved success." If he maintains that sense of purpose, I bet his chances of success, as well as happiness, are pretty good.

I also bet if Wall Street executives and our politicians had a similar purpose, and tied that to their companies and their legislative processes, we could have avoided some of the periodic upheaval and political gridlock of our time.