Faculty & Research
The School


Beyond organisational purpose
Drawing on ancient contemplative practices will help leaders to embrace ‘planetary purpose’, says Andrew White

From the perspective of recent history, first there was personal purpose. Perhaps born of the self-help movement and the counter-culture of the 1960s, it has long been a focus in the world of personal development.

Then came organisational purpose. The origins of this might be traced to the vociferous political and media criticism of the financial sector that followed the 2007 banking crisis. As a result of this, and other high-profile corporate scandals such as those of BCCI, Enron, and (more recently) Volkswagen, organisations started to concentrate not only on resolving unethical practices but also on thinking about their reason d’être. For example, after the LIBOR scandal, the former CEO of Barclay’s Bank in the UK, Anthony Jenkins, set up a Culture and Values initiative labelled ‘Transform’. Part of it was about going back to the Quaker roots of the bank and re-defining the purpose of the organisation as ‘Helping people achieve their ambitions, in the right way’.

But is this enough? As challenges such as climate change, inequality, and rising populations are global in scale, they draw attention to our inter-dependence and other-reliance. Co-operation and collaboration will be key, and will require us to look beyond the individual and the organisation to focus instead on ‘planetary purpose’.

The term itself is not new: ‘planetary purpose’ was coined more than 20 years ago by Roger Harrison in his article Leadership and Strategy for a New Age. But maybe its time has now come. Oxford Saïd Associate Fellow Richard Olivier, who runs Olivier Mythodrama, uses the idea of planetary purpose as a guiding principle in his own work with business leaders. He explains that it is a much larger concept than the current buzzword ‘sustainability’: ‘If someone asks “how is your life, or marriage?” replying “It’s sustainable” does not convey a great feeling of things being good’, he says.

Indeed, it implies a kind of subsisting. Sustainability should be the default position – if someone is not committed to sustainability, quite simply they should not be in a leadership role – but it is not the end goal. Planetary purpose is proactive and productive: it tackles our most difficult problems such as child labour or abuse of corporate lobbying, and goes beyond compliance.

As my co-author Steven D’Souza and I argue in a forthcoming article on contemplative leadership, embracing planetary purpose is itself challenging, and requires leaders to act in ways that may not be welcomed by all stakeholders. 

For example, US healthcare retailer CVS removed tobacco products from its stores in 2014, losing a predicted $2bn a year in sales. The food company Mars announced earlier this year that some of their products should only be consumed once or twice a week; and in August the CEO of Sainsbury’s argued that the UK Government’s Obesity Strategy did not go far enough, and urged ministers to introduce compulsory targets to cut the amount of sugar in foods and give ‘clear, consistent guidelines’ on portion sizes. Sainsbury’s has independently phased out multi-buy promotions on products including confectionery, biscuits, soft drinks and crisps.

Actions such as these are not easy. They need enough investment and a commitment to the long term, beyond quarterly results or the tenure of the CEO. They may lead to declining profits in the short term, and even the occasional backlash from customers and staff. There are also tensions involved in working to create a better future that the CEO or current leadership team may never get to see.

All of this requires a type of ‘heroism’ in organisational leaders that is diametrically opposed to the traditional image of the intrepid CEO who believes in winning for the organisation in tough conditions – and who therefore tries not to pick a battle that cannot be won in the short term. This new heroism is about disregarding the ego, adopting a global perspective, and – most of all – letting go of the idea of the business as some sort of ‘selfish gene’ that is perpetually competing to survive as the fittest in the market place.

We believe that there is an emerging argument that adapting to the current environment and these new demands of leadership can be done by drawing on practices from ancient contemplative and spiritual traditions (practices that are being adopted by organisations such as Google, with its mindfulness based ‘Search Inside Yourself’ programme being the best-known example, but also meditation in organisations as diverse as General Mills to the US Army, police services and our own MBA and Executive Education Programmes). The wisdom needed to follow a path of planetary purpose is not something that can be taught or acquired, but instead arises when you have made space for new thinking to emerge. This is difficult. As we know, one of the biggest challenges for CEOs is simply managing their time and attention on a day to day basis, and leadership development programmes, especially at a senior level, are typically intensive experiences. In addition, most people need some form of guidance in contemplative practices: simply making time is not enough.

But, as hard as these practices may be, especially in a fast-moving society based increasingly on acquisition and consumption, they could become an important way of helping leaders guard against hubris and a narrow focus on one objective or set of stakeholders to the detriment of the good of the world.



Andrew White View profile

Andrew White is Associate Dean for Executive Education at Saïd Business School and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. An experienced programme director, teacher and researcher, his areas of expertise include innovation management and leadership development.