Who are you and Why are you here?: The value of identity and purpose in business

Jim Collins’ famous study showed that Visionary Companies, companies that have core values and ideologies that drive their business activities, are 15 TIMES MORE PROFITABLE than the general market, even though they claim that profit was not their primary motive. *

15 TIMES!!  1500%!!

For Disney, this means they strive “to make people happy”. At Johnson & Johnson, they are driven to “alleviate pain and disease”, and each define their success in all areas by how it contributes to their purpose. They are absolutely clear about who they are and why they exist.  They are strong brands working with a clear purpose.

So if it’s that straightforward, why is this not the way all companies are structured?

I think it’s a case of mistaken identity. I think we’ve lived for so long in a commmoditised, conformity-driven, mechanised world that we’ve replace Who and Why with What”. As a result, people almost invariably identify themselves by what they do (“I’m a lawyer/brand manager/artist”) and companies by the widget they make or the service they provide. They make their identity a generic ‘what’ instead of a unique Who. And the Why as often as not becomes either self-centred (because I enjoy it) or transactional (because I need to pay the rent). Which is a pity, because most people join companies because of shared values and goals and the chance to contribute to something meaningful – they just end up in the transactional trap when those avenues are closed off to them.

It’s no surprise then that when these What identities are undermined (the executive is made redundant, the competitor redefines the market – iTunes anyone?) that a massive identity crisis and nervous breakdown ensues.

I mean really, which would you find more inspiring? To work for a company that ‘makes personal care products’ or one whose mission is ‘to alleviate pain and disease’? An animation house, or a company that strives ‘to make people happy’? To do tax returns and audit books or create financial security for young families? Teach maths or inspire young minds?

It’s not merely a rephrase or a redefinition of the market (e.g. from cereal to breakfast). It’s a fundamental reframe.

Every person and every company and every brand has a unique Who and a personal Why. We’ve just forgotten them, confining ourselves to safe, limiting little What boxes instead of exploring the rocket fuel of Identity and Purpose. With Identity and Purpose come motivation, passion, meaning and agility – and a limitless variety of possible Whats. With Identity and Purpose come vision and momentum. With Identity and Purpose come 1500% greater profitability than the general market.

So I ask you again:

Who are you –  really – and why are you here?

* From Built To Last , Collins & Porras.  Similar figures can be found in the more recent Firms of Endearment (Sisodia, Wolfe, Sheth) and Meaning Inc (Bains) albeit from slightly different standpoints.


  • Identity is an important concept. A really good question is: what is our experience of identity? We don't usually associate any of our emotions with identity but assign them to other sources: relationships, situations, cultural triggers, etc. So how can we distinguish experiences of identity from other experiences? My belief is that identity is experienced as a more constant, underlying feeling that, in times of silence or mediation, emerges into our awareness. To name this experience is to generally trivialize it but it has two primary poles along a spectrum: "peace" or "disturbance." Your experience of identity probably has components of coherence, which is experienced as background "peace and fitting together" and it also has some fault lines, experienced as "disturbance and not quite fitting together." The most fundamental task in life is to deal with the disturbances and move toward the "peaceful" pole, creating an ever more coherent identity for ourselves, no matter what kind of experiences have shaped us up to now in our lives. No one knows how to do this task and we all have to learn how to do it. Mentors can help us frame questions about our identity but only we can do the work to create the "peace and fitting together" experience of ourselves that we all deeply desire.
  • Thanks Jim. I hadn't looked at it like that, and it fits with my experience. I sort things almost intuitively by whether they 'stack' or 'don't stack', which mirrors your mirror/disturbance concept. I have a huge drive to make things stack, and do this almost regardless of context: solving problems, intuitively trusting a person / company or not, evaluating an idea or a plan or work of art, deciding whether to believe whatever excuse my offspring are feeding me for their lack of domestic diligence ... For me, making things 'stack' is really about finding the underlying structure that makes sense of the situation. The existing order within the seeming chaos. When we find this, there is a sense of structural integrity, of 'rightness' or resonance that makes us somehow relax. Your 'peace and fitting together' experience. And when we don't, we just have more 'opportunities for learning and growth'...

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