How to Bring People to the Common Good: What Authentic Leaders Learn About Higher Purpose

May 13, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

I was doing a week of executive education with senior government leaders. Many had military backgrounds. In the middle of the week, one of them pulled me aside and told me why he had recently left a high-paying corporate job.


He said that, when he was an officer in the Army, he had to make the conscious decision that he was willing to die in pursuing his various missions. Why? When you have to attack a high-risk objective, he explained, it becomes probable that some of your people are going to die. Everyone is aware of the probability.

There is a paradox. It is crucial that everyone is willing to die because that commitment actually reduces the probability of death. Total commitment leads to greater effort and higher coordination. Higher coordination increases the likelihood of collective success and decreases the number of people who are likely to die. If everyone is willing to die it becomes probable that more people will live.

A major determinant of total commitment among the troops is their perception of their leader’s commitment to the group. No matter what the leader says or does, the troops can tell if the leader is authentic, and if the leader is willing to do what the leader is asking them to do. If the leader is willing to die for the group, the troops are more likely to make the same commitment.

Values Clarification

The man told of missions in which people did die. He felt accountable to speak to the mothers and wives. Such experiences lead to deep reflection and the clarification of values. They therefore lead to greater self-awareness and to authentic influence.

My associate said that over time he has learned to ask two questions: What is the objective? It is worth the probable costs? If the answers are affirmative, he totally commits, and people are usually willing to follow him.

On one hand, his philosophy makes him influential. On the other hand, his philosophy leads to low tolerance for people who are not authentic.

This man left his recent professional situation because he perceived that the people above him were not totally committed to their mission. In other words, the organization was normal. It was run by normal executives making normal assumptions and enacting normal self-interested transactions. They were engaging in normal, politically driven decision making. My friend finds that he is no longer willing to work in a normal organization. Why?

He is aware of a reality that many less-developed people cannot even visualize. When a leader makes a genuine commitment to the common good, the culture begins to shift upward. The organization is no longer normal. Commitment increases, people begin to spontaneously contribute, and collaboration and performance increase.

As the unified organization becomes unique in capacity, the individuals have unique collective experiences. Those unique experiences create unique learning in the individuals. They perform beyond their normal, individual capacity. Being connected to the collective good leads them to become better versions of themselves. Because they feel better about themselves, they take a new view of themselves and of the world. They discover that instead of living to survive they can choose to flourish.

My friend was unwilling to continue in an organization that was tied to the normal assumptions of survival. He is willing to wait until he could find an organization of higher purpose because he knows that life is most worth living in collective relationships based in higher purpose.