Feeling a sense of purpose or meaning is central for humans. In fact, if we feel a greater (one standard deviation) sense of purpose than the average person, then we reduce our risk of dying by 15% over the next 14 years (Hill & Turiano, 2014. Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood. Psychological Science). Plus, when we get insights about our purpose we might work harder to improve things for others.
At the World Economic Forum, I heard lots of examples of this. will.i.am talked about DJing one night, making a "shitload of money spinning somebody else's music." After giving it some thought (and clearing it with his mother!) he gave that money to people losing their homes to foreclosure. He also pays for science programs in low-income LA schools where he grew up, trying to make a local difference with kids destined for gang life. He tells them: "Boycott prison! Develop your mind." will.i.am was on fire with purpose.
That is one variety of purpose: deciding how you can use your personal skills or money or time to help others. Another sort of purpose is the kind employees can experience at work, through the products they make and services that they deliver. This type of purpose can be highlighted by leaders who think and talk about what their industry is good for. Unilever sells soap, which could be seen as a pedestrian consumer good without much inspiration. But soap was invented to reduce bacteria and disease. So while in some markets soap is a means to market share and profits, in poor rural communities soap is used to help kids live to see their 5th birthday. Likewise, making toilet cleaner may not sound like a higher level purpose. But because 1.1 billion people still practice open defecation, Unilever Foundation teamed up with UNICEF to improve people's access to basic sanitation, and in turn help to improve their health. At Davos leaders like Paul Polman talked about how organizations can take their products to places where they have the most impact on others. This can help create a culture of purpose - so that employees think about how they affect others and do something good. They not only feel more purposeful (and live longer!) but also feel motivated to work harder to help their employer reach goals (which helps it live longer!).
The tricky thing with this second type of purpose is that in order to work, it needs to be real. It needs to be part of why your company exists, or it breeds cynicism. As EY's Mark Weinberger said at Davos: "Purpose is not an add-on to your strategy." And even more important: Purpose is personal. It's something that needs to be found, not something that is assigned to you by your employer. Purpose is not something a leader can deal out like playing cards.
But leaders can co-create purpose with employees. First, by offering personal experiences that allow employees to witness first-hand the effects of their products on other people. SAS sends programmers out for two weeks each year to 'live' with clients and help clients do their jobs. Roche brings patients in to talk about how drugs allowed them to see their children grow up. Second, leaders can give employees 'bootleg time' where some of their work hours are devoted to projects they personally find compelling (like Atlassian software's FedEx days or 3M's bootleg time). Third, leaders can talk with employees about "the why of their work," and then help employees spend more time on products and with customers they naturally care about (an Arla Foods employee might spend a year developing a market in Africa to improve nutrition using powdered milk). Finally, leaders can find ways to use existing products to highlight and help solve some world problem (like Unilever investing in sanitation).
Maybe a good purpose for leaders is to help employees find more purpose in their work. It's a humanistic cause, because we spend most of our waking hours at work. It's life giving, because purpose helps people live longer, and the years are better. And it helps organizations win because they get more potential out of their employees.