It's been a few weeks since my last blog post, firstly because I was preparing to go on holiday so had lots of loose ends to tie up and then because I was out of the country with the family! We spent two fantastic weeks travelling through the southern states of the USA, flying into Charleston, South Carolina, then driving through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, up into Tennessee, (to visit Memphis, Nashville and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge), then into North Carolina and finally back to Charleston to fly home. We drove just shy of 2,000 miles and the next series of blogs will be inspired by the things we saw and did and the experiences we shared.
One of the topics that comes up a lot in leadership and in building high performing teams at the moment, is the idea of Purpose. Before I left Natwest in 2021, then CEO Alison Rose had taken the bank on a journey to become a purpose-led organisation and much of my final year there was spent supporting leaders to explore both the organisation's purpose, as well as their own, looking for alignment and for areas where the two seemed at odds. I focussed heavily on creating a safe space for challenge and reflection and encouraged those leaders to lean into the experience and the opportunity. Stopping and reflecting often doesn't come naturally to people, particularly those who exist in environments where it's all go, all of the time, so there's a lot to be gained from doing so, both for the team and the individual.
Many other organisations have been and continue to go on similar journeys and yours might be one, but even if it isn't, there's huge value in spending some time thinking about your own purpose. It can be daunting to do so, but the payoff is significant. Research has shown that people who have a sense of purpose are happier, more resilient, and more successful than those who don't. It's easy to make progress when things are going well and the sun is shining but grit is needed when you face challenge and adversity. In my experience, that's when being clear on your purpose can be hugely powerful in generating momentum.
The importance of purpose in difficult times was brought back to me emphatically when we made our first stop after Charleston and spent a couple of days in Atlanta, Georgia where I was able to fulfil an ambition that I'd held for almost thirty years.
When I was twelve and in my first year of high school, back in Laurencekirk, a history teacher played our class a recording of one of, if not the most famous speeches of all time. Delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream was the final speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest rallies for human rights in US history, attended by 250,000 people. From his first words, I was captivated! The power and emotion of his voice blew me away and his management of the energy and pace of his delivery created crescendos like music. I'd never heard anything like it. The teacher noticed my enthusiasm and the next time we came to class, he gave me a cassette containing a compilation of King's speeches which I used to listen to over and over on my little Boots own-brand walkman (yes, that Boots and yes, my wife does find it hilarious that I had a walkman made by a high street chemist). It was a lovely gift.
From that point, I became fascinated by Dr King and the American civil rights movement. Fast forward 28 years, going to Atlanta finally gave me the chance to visit the Martin Luther King National Park; to spend time in the museum, see his childhood home, visit his grave and, most significantly, to visit Ebenezer Baptist church, where his father Martin Luther King Sr. was the pastor and he was co-pastor until his death. On the way out of the church, painted on the wall is a quote from Dr King's autobiography. In the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Protest (a 382-day boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama from 1955 to 1956 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person) of which King was a key organiser, he came under attack including having a shotgun fired through the window of his family home. The threat of retribution was real and he considered stepping away from the civil rights movement, but decided to pray on it. The quote on the wall tells what happens next:
"It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, 'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever. ' Almost at once my fears passed from me. My uncertainty disappeared"
Having your life threatened for what you believe in is, hopefully, not something that most of us will face. But it's about as stern a test of purpose as a person can face. Walking away would have been the easier (and safer) choice but King knew how significant the work he was engaged with was. In his moment of greatest fear, worry and turmoil, he had a purpose to lean on.
In the museum, there were a number of video stations, showing key speeches from the archives and one stopped me in my tracks, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and took me back to my childhood and my little cassette player. King's final speech, delivered in support of the striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. Twelve years on from Montgomery, but still facing threats to his life, he concedes that difficult days lie ahead, but closes by affirming his belief that his purpose, to see equality and fairness and an end to discrimination, will ultimately be achieved with or without him:
"I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land"
The following day, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead, at the age of 39.
Try some journaling. Meditate on the questions of what matter to you and what you stand for. Go for a walk without your headphones and be alone with your thoughts. Take some time to explore your own purpose and to begin to understand where you're heading. Give yourself something to lean on when times get tough.