Blog post

New Year, New Era: Finding Your Purpose and Becoming a Better Leader

By Derek Frost | December 14, 2021 | 0 Comments

Financial ServicesFinancial Services Talent Management, Leadership and Culture

The past two years have reminded us that any barriers between the professional and the personal, the individual and the collective, are illusory. Covid-19, together with social unrest and the implacable flow of the virtual into the “real” world, have made compartmentalizing life impossible. This meshing together of everything means that traditional, tidy notions of how to lead are obsolete. There are simply no foolproof formulas for leadership in an increasingly unstable, random, and hard-to-predict world. To have any hope of navigating it, you need a sense of purpose.

Your own sense of purpose matters.

This was brought home in a recent session facilitated by my colleague Mary Mesaglio, Managing Vice President with Gartner’s CEO and Digital Futures group. The title itself, “Personal Leadership: Finding Your Purpose for 2022 and Beyond,” is a reminder of how intertwined your own individual sense of purpose is with how you engage your team. Rethinking and articulating that purpose–something a lot of people have been doing during the pandemic–not only enhances your well-being and your relationships, but is also essential for exercising empathetic, creative, and compelling leadership at a time that’s starting to look like a transition to a new era.

Feeling exhausted? No wonder.

It’s an age of upheaval. Change is faster and more disorienting, thanks in large part to new technologies and to the networked nature of… well, practically everything. Mary reminded us of a reality that’s easy to overlook because it’s so ubiquitous: a state of collective exhaustion. Leaders have had to respond, directly or indirectly, to at least four crises: health (the pandemic and its emotional impact); economy (now manifesting as labor, supply chain, and pricing shifts); social justice (spurred by the murder of George Floyd, which brought new attention to longstanding racial oppression and inequality); and climate (fire “seasons” that never end, together with a relentless onslaught of hurricanes, floods, and other severe weather).

These aren’t things we can simply acknowledge and then turn away from by changing the proverbial channel, for they inform our day-to-day life at work and at home. Together, the crises seem to have awakened a need among many to reconsider their purpose. Younger staff especially, as well as clients, are bringing new expectations of more purposeful communication and action in response. Each employee has lived through her/his/their own version of the pandemic, with its unique blend of stress factors (all harder to leave behind at home once home becomes the office, at least for those fortunate enough to be able to work remotely).

Meet the moment with empathy and action (and less corporate-speak).

In this environment, Mary said, empathetic leaders listen to the emotion behind the words they hear from their team, not the words alone. Empathy is a lot more than just processing what someone is saying. By the same token, “values,” no matter how noble or well-intentioned, aren’t enough. Meaningful action, spurred by purpose, is what counts. Hack the culture, Mary advised: make even small emotional changes to the daily environment. And ditch corporate-speak. Become more authentic in how you address colleagues.

Turn off auto-pilot behaviors.

Reevaluating your purpose leads to changing other default behaviors besides the language you use. You may conclude, for instance, that you need to quash the habit of automatically calling meetings, which can actually be an unimaginative and unhelpful way to deal with things. Meeting-free “zones” on the calendar may become more common as a response to the burnout and lack of productivity that an endless string of video calls engenders.

One insidious default behavior, Mary noted, is to resist reversing decisions. Most decisions, in fact, are reversible, so don’t be afraid to walk them back. And don’t be afraid of not having all the information you’d like in order to decide. After all, isn’t that the essence of Agile? (While you’re at it, democratize the process by pushing decisions to lower levels.)

Honor employees’ sense of purpose–and harness change.

Perhaps the most important thing leaders can do is to help staff by supporting their own journey of purpose. Assist them in identifying their default behaviors. Coach them out of their comfort zones to harness the opportunities inherent in all this change.

And put transformation in perspective: despite its aspirational connotations, Mary suggested, “transformation” is really just a kind of corporate self-help program imposed from above—which, unsurprisingly, is exhausting for everyone involved. Instead, there are other approaches you can adopt at a more human scale to make it easier for your team to adjust purposefully to change:

  1. Acknowledge cognitive dissonance among employees facing change: they may understand what’s being asked of them, but they can feel uncomfortable if it goes against the grain of what they’ve been taught.
  2. Make changes bite-sized from the start so that they’re less intimidating.
  3. Be specific about what employees should do differently.
  4. Remember: rational arguments for change don’t convince; only emotional ones really move the dial.
  5. Model the behavior you want–and be willing to let go of old certainties early on.
  6. Be sensitive to your choice of words so that you don’t inadvertently send the wrong message.
  7. Differentiate between performance and learning zones to remove pressure; failure is OK.
Take a deep breath. Then take the plunge–into the future.

As we move into 2022, it’s vital to step back, review what we’ve been through, and reconsider the purpose that gets us up in the morning and motivates us as we go through our days.

The same applies to leaders. They’ll be most effective when they define their purpose so that it better harmonizes with employees’ own sense of meaning. That way, everyone will be better able to navigate the times we’re living in–and support each other in the process.


The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed