Exploring the concept of purposeful leadership, this research draws on findings from surveys, interviews and focus groups to identify links between purposeful leadership, ethical leadership behaviours and various employee and organisational outcomes. Our research also investigates how organisations can nurture an environment where leaders can be purposeful.

Purposeful leadership: What is it, what causes it, and does it matter?

The construct of purposeful leadership diagram

There's been considerable interest in the notion of purposeful organisations in recent years, driven by growing levels of distrust and disillusionment with what are often regarded as the short-termist, financial imperatives driving contemporary firms. Typically, the attributes of purposeful organisations – societal responsibility, values and ethics – are simply translated into the qualities that characterise their ideal leaders. But what type of leaders do purposeful organisations really need?

In this study, we answer this question by conceptualising a new construct of purposeful leadership, which includes the extent to which a leader has a strong moral self, a vision for his or her team, and whether they take an ethical approach to leadership marked by a commitment to stakeholders. We also investigate the impact it has on various employee and organisational outcomes.

The research is based on case studies from five organisations in different sectors and a survey of a representative sample of the UK working population. Detailed methodology is provided in the technical report, which you can find below, along with an infographic and discussion paper

If you’re interested in finding out more about what leaders and their followers said at the case study organisations, take a look at our interview with Patrick Brione, Head of Policy and Research, IPA.

Download the reports below:

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Key findings

Prevalence of purposeful leadership diagram
  • Purposeful leadership and its constituent components - moral self, commitment to stakeholders and vision - are important in influencing a range of employees outcomes.
  • Only 21% of managers in the UK rate themselves highly as purposeful leaders.
  • There is a link between purposeful leadership and employees’ perception that their leaders behave ethically, although the relationship is complex and varies across organisational contexts.
  • The links between purposeful leadership and the extent to which employees believe their ethics and values fit well with those of their organisation vary across the case studies.
  • Enablers of purposeful leadership centre around having clear policies in place, role-modelling from senior leaders, training, and organisational culture.
  • Constraints against purposeful leadership centre around time and resource pressures, leading to the prioritisation of business or organisational interests. 

Professor Katie Bailey shares more key findings from the study

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Professor Katie Bailey

CIPD: What organisations took part in the research?       

Katie Bailey: We had a charity organisation from a care sector, we had a central government department, we had a county police force and a major UK retailer and in addition to this we did collect some data as well from a national sample of working people via a questionnaire survey and we also did some interviews in another manufacturing organisation so we got quite a wide range of data from different types of organisations, people doing very different types of work.

CIPD: What are your key findings?

Katie Bailey: One of the things that really stood out for me in terms of what we discovered was that only 21% of people within the working population rate themselves highly as purposeful leaders and I think that’s quite a concerning finding because if people aren’t able to be purposeful as they go about their work, so they haven’t got a strong vision for their team, they’re not really committed to stakeholders around the organisation and in the organisation and they don’t have a very strong sense of their own moral self, so if people are rating themselves low on these three things, that is really quite an important finding for organisations and I think it represents quite a significant barrier to creating purposeful organisations.   So we’re hearing a lot these days about the need for organisations to be purposeful, to go beyond short-term profit making and to really think about the place of organisations in society and what they can contribute to the greater good and if we have leaders in organisations who don’t have a strong sense of their own purpose, then this is going to really be an impediment to organisations developing that sense of purpose that we really need in society today.

CIPD: How can organisations nurture purposeful leaders?   
Katie Bailey: One of the questions that we asked as we went round the organisations was “what factors enable the creation of an environment that fosters purposeful leadership” and some of the things that really came out from that were things like the importance of having a really good whistle-blowing policy that people felt empowered and enabled to use. We also found that it was really important that employees felt that their leaders set a very good example in terms of being purposeful themselves.   So where people felt that their leaders weren’t themselves being purposeful or ethical then it was much more difficult for that environment to be created that really encouraged individual employees to be purposeful and ethical in their own work.  I think also another thing that people talked about quite a lot was the importance of training and development.  So people welcomed the opportunity to go to development workshops and so on where they  could really learn about the organisation’s ethics, the way that they worked with the wider community and society, so that they could really see how they could develop their own sense of purpose and ethics as they go about their work.