“I believe that every team has a purpose. The purpose may be obscured or uninspiring or lacking in ambition but without a purpose a team will simply cease to exist.”
Tony Macaulay on Team Purpose

‘Sure, it’ll do us our time!’ said one of the leaders of the team.

His voice sounded resigned and grumpy in equal measure. I was shocked at the response to the question I had just posed to a small group of older volunteers who formed the leadership team of a declining inner city church. As we gathered around the glowing elements of an ancient electric fire in one of the draughty meeting rooms in the old stone building, the question I had asked was ‘What is your vision for the future of the church in this community?’

‘That’s right, son,’ agreed one of his elderly colleagues, looking suspiciously at the words I had written on my new fangled flip chart, ‘it’ll do me my time too.’

A wave of solemn nods passed around the team. My heart sank.

The leaders had invited me to facilitate a discussion on their purpose as a faith community in an inner city area that had changed dramatically since the days, many decades ago when the church had a large membership and a thriving range of activities. I had shared some examples of how other inner city churches had transformed their activities to meet the changing needs of their communities and as a result had restored their role and influence at the heart of their communities. But this team was uninspired by these new models of community engagement and seemed to feel threatened by any suggestion of change to their traditional way of working.

A few years later I was driving past the church and I noticed that it was closed down. It occurred to me that as a result of the lack of vision of the leadership team the church did not, in fact, even ‘do them their time.’

This team had not lacked a purpose. They had a shared purpose that their church should survive for another few years, just long enough to provide them with a traditional service and a funeral. It was their lack of an inspiring vision that resulted in their failure to achieve their limited purpose.

This example may seem a long way from a senior management team operating in a complex business environment, however, in my experience, the same dynamics are present in any team.

I believe that every team has a purpose. The purpose may be obscured or uninspiring or lacking in ambition but without a purpose a team will simply cease to exist.

However, many teams continue to exist with purposes that are unclear, uninspiring and unsupportive. These teams often work to some extent but they do not truly perform. Teams without a driving purpose can get things done but their achievements and impact are limited. I believe a shared, clear and inspiring purpose is an essential asset of a high-performing team.

Shared Purpose

Without shared purpose in a team, competing purposes can distract, take over or fragment a team. Competing purposes in a team are often hidden and can persist in an organisational culture where it is not the norm to make competition explicit in a ‘professional’ environment. The sort of sub purposes that can distract or overwhelm a team without a shared overall purpose include:

  • Personal career ambitions
  • Power dynamics – who’s in charge/who’s really in charge?
  • Resistance to change
  • Keeping my job at all costs
  • Protecting our department/unit/professional discipline
  • Pet projects
  • Hidden agendas – sub purposes of sub groups that are not made explicit
  • Unresolved conflict(s)

In my experience of facilitating strategic development processes with senior teams over the years, the one factor that most influences the pace of strategic development is whether or not the team has a shared vision. Leaders with a shared vision will usually articulate their purpose using similar language with a parallel sense of passion and clarity. Teams with a shared purpose can move swiftly from visioning into strategic prioritisation, ideas generation, innovation and business planning.

On the other hand, in my experience, teams that do not have a shared vision, easily become stuck in a cycle of debate and discussion over strategic priorities that can go on for years causing strategic drift and decline. The difference in energy levels is palpable. Teams with a shared purpose often have high energy and high levels of participation while teams with competing purposes are often exhausted with key team members choosing to withdraw from team activity to just get on with doing their own thing.

One of my most positive experiences of being part of a team with a shared purpose comes from my voluntary role in the establishment of a new integrated school in Northern Ireland. My children were born in the mid 1990s, a time when it seemed like peace might at last be possible. We were living in one of the few towns in Northern Ireland at that stage with no integrated school. As we began to consider our children’s education, my wife and I decided that we wanted our children to be educated with children of different faiths and none. We felt it would help them to grow up without the old sectarianism that was so familiar to us and we hoped that it would be normal for them to have friends from different backgrounds. We soon discovered that if we wanted the choice of integrated education we would have to start a school ourselves.

I never dreamed that I would be involved in setting up a school, and neither did the other parents who came together to form a steering group. We were just an ordinary group of parents from very different backgrounds with a shared purpose of our children being educated together. This shared purpose drove a diverse group of parents to work speedily and effectively. We committed long hours to achieving a tight deadline for convincing enough parents in our town to enrol their children in a school that didn’t exist, so that the Department of Education would fund the development. We just made it. We reached our target enrolment number the night before the Minister of Education made the decision. We achieved our shared purpose within 18 months and the school has thrived ever since. It’s a good example of how a shared purpose can energise and drive a team of very different individuals to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Clarity of Purpose

A shared purpose is vital but there must be clarity of purpose as well. It’s remarkable how many teams in large organisations lack clarity about why they exist. If I ask the members of a team why it exists and they say ‘just because we do’ or ‘it’s always been this way’, alarm bells begin to ring. If a team does not understand its purpose it can sometimes scrape along nicely but it is highly unlikely to perform at maximum capacity. A team without clarity of purpose can be an unchallenging, unsatisfying and demotivating work environment.

Sometimes teams do have a clear purpose, but because that stated purpose is too broad the team can lack focus and direction. In my work with organisations in the field of social change I sometimes find leadership teams expressing their purposes in very similar ways. ‘To make the world a better place’ is not a clear purpose. Similarly, ‘beat our competitors’ and ‘maximise the profits for our shareholders’ are too broad to provide any meaningful strategic focus and momentum. A clear purpose must be specific. To provide meaning, a purpose must be clear, tangible and compelling:

“A clear and compelling purpose is the glue that binds together a group of individuals. It is the foundation on which the collective “we” of a real team is built.”
The Fundamental Purpose of Your Team by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback, Harvard Business Review Blog, July 12, 2011

I recently worked with a team of senior leaders in a public institution that was facing major change as a result of a change in government policy. In spite of the challenges they faced in managing complex change in a highly political context the leadership team had great clarity of focus. They knew exactly what they wanted to do; they just had to work out the best way of doing it. I believe this clarity will enable them to successfully navigate the institution through a period of potentially destabilising change.

Inspiring Purpose

What’s the point of having a purpose if it seems pointless to the members of your team?

I believe a team purpose needs to be inspiring. An inspiring purpose will resonate with the personal and professional commitments of a team. An inspiring purpose will drive teams to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen in the first place.

Every team is made up a group of individuals with their own personal commitments and goals. In this context it’s important to consider the extent to which the personal purpose is aligned with the purpose of your team or organisation.

What kind of purpose motivates and inspires you?

A few years ago I led a workshop with a group of young social entrepreneurs from different parts of the world. It was an exceptional group of talented and highly committed young people in their early twenties. When I asked them to describe the personal commitment, which underpinned the purpose of their social enterprise, the responses came immediately:

  • To give every girl in my country the opportunity of an education
  • To give the street children in my city a home and a place in a school
  • To reduce gang violence in my neighbourhood
  • To reduce HIV infection in my region

 When the young entrepreneurs had introduced themselves earlier and described their organisations I had been impressed, but when they articulated the deep personal commitment that motivated them to achieve their purposes I was moved to the extent that I wanted to join them! I was enrolled in their visions. Of course not every team will be driven by such philanthropic goals, but every team needs to be inspired. I believe that an inspiring purpose can transform a meeting, a project and a team from average performance to extraordinary achievement. An inspiring purpose touches your emotions, chimes with your personal values and excites your professional ambitions.


An exceptional leader will support the development of a shared purpose, enable the establishment of a clear purpose and will articulate and promote an inspiring purpose.

So here are a few questions to consider as a leader of a team:

  • What steps can I take to create a shared purpose in my team?
  • How can I support the development of absolute clarity of purpose within my team?
  • How can I inspire my team with a purpose that reflects their strongest commitments?


tonymacauleyTony Macaulay

Tony is a TOWARD associate, a social entrepreneur and management consultant who works with senior management and board level directors to review strategic and organisational development, to manage change and to achieve sustainable performance improvement at a strategic level. He creates innovative solutions for today’s most complex business issues by fully utilising his unique knowledge base, gained during his 30 years of experience in ‘not for profit’ management, conflict resolution and social entrepreneurship.

Tony began his career in community development and conflict resolution in North Belfast in the 1980s and in the 1990s he worked as National Programmes Manager for an international youth organisation. He established Macaulay Associates in 2001 to provide research, management, facilitation and developmental support to organisations committed to creating positive social change. This includes community based research and programme development and strategic consultations and reviews to inform and shape government and agency policies and programmes. He provides interim executive leadership to organisations in transition and crisis. Tony is also a regular broadcaster with BBC Radio Ulster and his childhood memoirs, ‘Paperboy’ (2010) and ‘Breadboy’ (2013), have become critically acclaimed bestsellers. He has just released his third memoir ‘All Growed Up’.