Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton regularly glides down 80-100 ft. waves. Rock poet Eddie Vedder leads arenas full of Pearl Jam fans through angst and hope-filled anthems. But when the Sundance Channel paired the two up for an episode of their show, Iconoclast, they pulled away from the adrenaline and crowds.
The two sat alone on the edge of Hamilton’s Hawaiian property overlooking the ocean. They waxed poetic about nature, about the beauty of it all. The combined experiences of an elite athlete and a rock star pale when they acknowledge the waves. They talk about their fathers and the milestones they want to reach. Both agree that there’s something out there, something beyond the waves.
What they were looking for in that conversation, beyond the ocean, was meaning.
The philosophy of beauty suggests that beauty always points to something beyond itself, challenging the person encountering it to ask, “What am I really seeing?” The same can apply to your organization. Beauty in your organization pulls in your audience and compels them to look past the surface toward a deeper sense of meaning — the “thing behind the thing,” if you will.
When someone digs into your work, what will they find? We might call this your organizational purpose. The stronger your purpose, the stronger your brand, and the more attractive your organization to your audience. If you aren’t intentional about cultivating a meaningful purpose, then you risk creating a shallow organization that won’t resonate as deeply.
So how can you cultivate a healthy organizational purpose if you don’t already have one? Start by looking at your origin and asking some thought-starter questions:
At a core level, what are (or were) the founders passionate about?
What kept them up at night when starting the organization?
What problem frustrated them the most?
Has the thinking, problem, culture, etc. evolved over time?
What problem were the founders trying to solve?
Be careful, this isn’t the same as “What is your business?” This is the core essence of why you started your organization.
If money were no object, what would you fix in the world?
Who benefits if you solve this problem?
Why do they benefit?
What changes for them?
As you think about designing your organization for purpose, it’s helpful to imagine what it would look like if your organization was totally aligned for positive impact displaying three overlapping characteristics:
Imaginative: See past existing constructs and constraints
Interconnected: Express holistic alignment
Generative: Amplify positive effects in the culture
An organization can exhibit one or two of these characteristics and do fantastic work. For example, an organization can have a unique perspective or model on a problem they are solving — they are imaginative. But if that same organization has horrible HR policies, then that organization is not interconnected.
When an organization exhibits all three of these qualities, they find the type of alignment that can challenge cultural assumptions, shape collective consciousness, create a sustained positive impact, and animate audiences toward desired outcomes.
Let’s dig into each of the three.
Often, the way things “have to work” holds our imaginations hostage. The world around us dictates how we think, operate, and act. We buy into solutions and models without giving them much thought because that’s “just the way things are.”
Aligned organizations do this by rejecting the inevitability of existing paradigms. They challenge dominant desires, mindsets, behaviors, and language.
If you are a fast-food chain, it makes total sense to be open on Sunday — especially in the southern United States, where every God-fearing Southerner goes out to eat after church. So, when Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A in Atlanta and decided to stay closed on Sundays, that decision made no sense. The idea would be crazy and cost the company a lot of money. But Cathy wanted to create a workplace that encouraged employees to spend time with their families, to have a Sabbath, and to recharge for the week ahead.
Regardless of your feelings about Chick-fil-A, this was a bold move that now costs the company close to a billion dollars in revenue each year. Cathy’s decision took guts and imagination to see past the status quo. He chose to reject the common philosophy that in order to survive in the fast food industry, you must serve sandwiches on Sundays. In doing so he curbed a desire for more money, shifted a mindset from hustle to rest, changed employee behavior, and gave language for how they talked about their day off.
What if you rejected the language of inevitability that forces our imaginations and actions into pre-defined solutions, whether they’re good or bad? What if you tried to offer people something different, better, and more beautiful than what they currently know? And what if in doing so, you could prove that business can run in new ways, speak in new languages, and offer the most good for the most people?
Finally, what if you did all this while still operating under the governing rules of business that allow an organization to stay open year after year?
This idea can shatter paradigms and lead you to new ways of operating that reflects beauty and your organizational purpose.
Are there things within my industry that are considered the “status quo?” If so, do those things reflect my values?
What tension do I see with my purpose and other organizational goals? (Read this as a primer.)
In what ways can your organization reflect its purpose through how it operates?
Imagine yourself in 15 years. What story do you tell?
I once sat in on a conversation with a wildly successful CEO. His company created wonderful policies for their employees. They cared for them and paid them well. The CEO was thoughtful about how his philosophies drove all that his organization did — except when it came to their products.
Yes, their products were thoughtful, inasmuch as the company didn’t make obscene things, but there was no philosophy of aesthetic or consumption or even obsolescence. No one asked, “Is this product too kitsch?” or “Should this product even exist?” or “Will it last?” They just made things they knew people would buy.
When there is misalignment within a business, a gap forms that creates a disconnected organization. In the example above, the business was able to do a lot of good for employees, but it wasn’t truly aligned.
Often, when we talk about “the good” of an organization, it distills down to a model or company culture or even something like HR policies or environmental practices. These are all great ways to push at the current assumptions around how organizations should operate, but they’re just the start.
The desire for a better world should impact every aspect of their organization — the pencils they buy, the paper in their printer, the people they hire, the product, the model, the mission, the vision. All of it.
Your imagination shapes your thinking and impacts the implementation of your ideas. As you form your organization and run it day to day, you have to wrestle with how your beliefs impact every component of your work.
Traditional business sense would say, “If the CEO’s organization is wildly successful, then the company is serving a real need or a real want of the market.” And in that view of the world, you are right; making money is the ultimate goal of the organization. Further, this CEO had great ethics and treated his employees well. No harm, no foul.
Instead, in total alignment around purpose, a leader might ask, “How can I reflect beauty in my organization in ways that make business sense?” Different types of questions yields different types of answers. This means your organization might turn down an idea that would clearly make money but not reflect your soul.
In this way, you look not only for things that make sense but things that you think will make the world better. Sometimes the answer is clear to you but others might disagree. We don’t live in a black-and-white world. But can we at least agree that just because you can sell something doesn’t mean you should sell it?
As you consider the ideas here, ask yourself a few questions.
Reflect on one thing you sell; in what ways does the whole of that “product” reflect your values? Think about the product in its entirety from the design, the production, the marketing, the accounting, the pricing, etc.
In what ways does the product not reflect your values, and in what ways does it reflect your values?
Which of your partners/vendors best reflect your organizational values? Which are poor reflections?
What is one small change you can make to your organization to make it more interconnected? It could be as simple as the coffee you brew or the way you source office supplies. Nothing is too small to consider.
What is the biggest change you could make? Would it ever be possible? If not, why? If so, how?
This thinking was rare among their competitors, and it seemed like their fanatical obsession with ingredient integrity, and waste reduction would put them at a disadvantage. But caring about the environment hasn’t halted Elevation Burger’s success. In fact, it’s given the restaurant a remarkable edge against the competition and is now being copied.
Before he founded his restaurant, Hess researched the use of antibiotics in livestock. This usage engendered antibiotic-resistant bacteria that leads to more intense, difficult-to-cure sicknesses in humans. He saw a product that he had loved since childhood — hamburgers — creating waste and making people sick. He knew he had to do something about it.
In an article explaining how Elevation Burger’s commitment to organic chicken is forcing McDonald’s and others to evaluate their food sourcing, USA Today stated that Elevation’s commitment to sourcing quality ingredients is a “watershed moment for the organic food movement in the U.S.” In the same article, Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said that she hopes Elevation can serve “as an example of how people can usually find a way to do the right thing if they persist.”
The same could be said of the concept of beauty. Above, we discussed the idea that beauty always points to something beyond itself. The same philosophy of beauty also suggests that when a thing is beautiful, it forces people to want to copy it. This is why you see so many artistic representations of landscapes and fruit bowls and lovers; these things compel us to want to sketch, paint, and write about them.
Our organizations can possess the same type of beauty, one that compels others to mimic it. Another organization might look at your model and decide they like the way you think or, in the case of Hess, they might look at your product and be forced to respond because the market has spoken. This doesn’t mean their motives will be the same as yours, but it does mean that the good you set out to infuse in the world is being compounded.
Scarcity or Abundance
But what about our competitive edge? This is a good question and certainly one that can’t be taken lightly. If you go out of business because too many people have copied you, then your impact would be limited.
Generative organizations have learned how to move from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. A scarcity mindset believes that every competitor or shift is a threat and that you can never make enough money. As a result, you have to do everything you can right now to make a profit.
An abundance mindset, on the other hand, understands that the world is filled with the ongoing cycles of birth and growth and that new ideas come and go. This mindset isn’t threatened by being copied; instead, it sees the idea of others copying their work as a signal that they are making a positive impact and a sign that other opportunities for growth are near.
As you consider with the ideas here, ask yourself a few questions.
What parts of being generative sound naive? Why?
What parts sound hopeful? Why?
Depending on your industry, it could be really bad for your business if a competitor copied all your IP, but what aspects of your organization would you gladly have people copy?
Who have you learned and copied from along the way?
In what ways can you “force” your industry to copy you? If not now, aspirationally. If they did, what would the cumulative positive impact be? (Impossible to answer, I know. Just go with it!)
 Concepts taken from On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry. This book is not without critique; however, I still find the concepts helpful.
 The idea of the “language of inevitability” is a bit of a theological construct set out in the book Colossians Remixed by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat.
 This Faith and Leadership article discusses Elevation Burger’s marketplace impact and experience: https://www.faithandleadership.com/elevating-fast-food
 On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry, pp. 3–5.