Actualized Leadership: Did You Do That On Purpose?

Actualized Leadership: Did You Do That On Purpose?

So that’s what destiny is: simply the fulfillment of the potentialities of the energies in your own system.
Joseph Campbell

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
Carl Jung

He who has a “why” can bear almost any “how.”
Viktor Frankl

To this day my stomach tightens when I hear someone ask “Did you do that on purpose?”  Growing up the middle child with two brothers, we were often asked that question by our parents in the context of bad behavior, and my answer was usually “yes.”  Yes, I meant to trip my brother, Yes, I hid my younger brother’s (Bert) handheld football game because he wouldn’t let me play, and Yes, I was listening in on my older brother’s (Wade) phone conversation.  Depending on the transgression there was usually some negative reinforcement or punishment that followed this question.  Hence, even today at 48 years old, my stomach still tightens when I hear that question.

The underlying meaning of this question relates to our intention or objective: did we act “on purpose?”  Sadly, many of us acted with greater intention when we were younger, even when our behavior involved sibling rivalry, than today when it involves our career choice, professional path, or life in general.

When I think about what it means to live from a high degree of self-actualization – being motivated to reach our highest potential and to perform at our optimal level – I think of qualities such as peak performance, objectivity, and even a little quirkiness.  The other quality that comes to mind, perhaps the most important, is the notion of Purpose.  When we meet someone who has found their Purpose we immediately recognize it.  The person is passionate, optimistic, intentional, and intensely focused.  Think about those qualities for a moment; they strike me as the ingredients for success.  And in turn, those qualities support optimal performance, which then actually reinforces our behavior in the pursuit and realization of our Purpose.

Purpose Defined

Purpose is defined as follows: the reason for which something exists; to have as one’s intention.  I like this definition because it goes beyond mere intention; it is the very reason for our existence.

The following graphic may be helpful in thinking about the intersection between the four different elements of Purpose, which are Passion, Mission, Profession, and Vocation.

Purpose Intersection

This graphic is important to consider because I too often encounter people who want to do something that they love and think would be exciting, but they either aren’t very good at it, the world doesn’t need it, or they can’t make a living doing it.  For example, most of us have at times dreamt of being an actor or actress, musician, or restaurateur.  The problem is that while I may think I sound like Dave Matthews singing “Crash Into Me” in the shower, or possess the virtuoso skills of Rush’s Alex Lifeson while playing the air guitar solo to “Limelight,” in reality, I don’t.  In order to truly live a life on Purpose, we must consider what we love to do in the context of what we are actually good at doing, what the world needs, and what we can be paid for doing.  For too many of us, we have forsaken one or more of those circles in the sole pursuit of another.

Finding Purpose

When I was a doctoral student under Professor Jerry Harvey, I once asked him how it felt after he wrote “The Abilene Paradox.”  He retorted, “I didn’t write it, it wrote me.”  When I think about his response in the context of Purpose, I am reminded that maybe we aren’t supposed to find Purpose; maybe we should create the conditions for it to find us.

Discovering Your Purpose

Now that we have defined Purpose, let’s turn our attention to discovering it.

First, you have to actually want to live a life on Purpose, as opposed to living one on autopilot.  Whether you find your Purpose, or it finds you, you very often must be willing to let go of what you think you should be, or what someone told you that you should be, in order to become who you are intended to be.  Joseph Campbell said “we must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned in order to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Second, we must value this notion of Purpose enough to invest our energy into its discovery, and that means that we must create the time and space to explore our gifts, talents, and passion.  Sadly, many of us spend more time planning our summer vacations than our lives.  Give yourself the “runway” to not only discover your Purpose, but also to create enough momentum to take off.

Finally, you must be willing to embrace the fear that is standing between your current position and your potential.  Oftentimes deciding to live life on Purpose will require you to make changes, some small and some drastic.  Making these changes will likely require you to get out of your comfort zone, and to face your fears and insecurities.  One of my all-time favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson follows: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards … always do what you are afraid to do.  Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

Are you currently living and leading on Purpose, or is your Purpose waiting to be discovered and actualized?  What do you need to let go of in order for your Purpose to find you?  What fear must you be willing to face in order to pursue your destiny?  Finally, what impact will you have had on the world when, at the very end, you can respond: “Yes, I lived my life on Purpose?”


  1. Amy Considine

    Thanks for a great and thought-provoking post. I really like the concept you shared of creating the right conditions for our purpose to find us!

  2. Graham Bennett

    I can relate to all that you said here Will, and my experiences concur… enjoyed your post much. Thanks!

  3. Felipe Mues

    Excellent post, thanks for getting deeper

  4. Linda Christopherson

    Will, the way you describe “purpose” calls to mind Frederick Buechner’s quote that our “calling is that place where your deep gladness and the worlds deep hunger meet.” He says finding it requires looking inward as well as outward. The idea of purpose or calling is a powerful one.


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