Five standout qualities of purposeful business leaders


Certain characteristics dominate in leaders who share a common narrative: A belief that business can and should be an active player in solving society’s biggest challenges.
woman leading discussion in a meeting
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As the business world leans in with growing vigour to embedding social purpose into their organisations and brands, two words will become more commonplace in the language of leadership: “Purposeful Leadership”.

It’s relevance? Societal leadership is now considered a core business function.

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows Australia following the global trend, with the majority of consumers, employees and investors preferencing brands and businesses based on their beliefs and values.

The Global Leadership Forecast 2018, one of the most comprehensive leadership studies undertaken, evaluated the financial performance of “purposeful companies” vs those with just a purpose statement and those without a purpose. Purposeful companies outperformed the market by 42 per cent.

Purpose matters. Purposeful companies are shaped by purposeful leaders.

Through writing two books on purpose and hosting a podcast, I’ve had the privilege to study and interview some of the most purposeful business leaders on the planet. Leaders of purpose-driven businesses including Unilever, PayPal, Intrepid Travel, Outland Denim, Zero Co and many more.

I’ve observed five standout qualities that all these leaders share. These same qualities I’ve seen in play in my purpose consultancy work with leaders across SMEs and large businesses.

There’s no coincidence in this. These characteristics dominate in leaders who share a common narrative: A belief that business can and should be an active player in solving society’s biggest challenges.

They lead with compassion

Purposeful leaders demonstrate high levels of compassion. Beyond empathy, what sets them apart is their conscious choice to act.

When James Bartle, an Australian freestyle motocross rider, saw a young girl for sale as he travelled Southeast Asia, he knew he had to act against human trafficking. Outland Denim, now a global fashion brand, was founded by James to empower vulnerable women through jobs, training and opportunity.

Compassion meant he couldn’t walk past that young girl and do nothing.

They demonstrate courage

When Paul Polman took over as CEO of Unilever in 2009 during the GFC, he took a remarkably brave step on his first day in his new role.

Polman told Unilever’s shareholders that the company would now take a longer-term view, abolishing quarterly annual reports and earnings guidance for the stock market. He went further, telling shareholders who didn’t buy into the long-term value-creation model that they should put their money elsewhere.

The following year, under his leadership, Unilever launched their new strategy, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, aiming to decouple its growth from environmental impact.

Courage is a hallmark of purposeful leaders. Whether it’s courage to expose themselves to public criticism of “wokeness”; or for smaller businesses, the courage to invest their money and effort into challenging the traditional mould of business, these leaders lean into discomfort. They are brave because of their conviction to do the right thing.

They are collaborative

As many leaders move from a win-lose to a win-win mindset, purposeful leaders go further. Their’s is a “win-with” approach. While win-win pre-supposes the metaphorical pie is limited, win-with adopts an abundance mindset; to bake a bigger, tastier pie for more people to enjoy.

Intrepid Travel’s purpose is to inspire, create, share and lead the best travel experiences ever – for both people and planet. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Intrepid went to zero revenue almost overnight, with a complete halt in operations. Their purpose inspired their leaders to look beyond the crisis. One of the outcomes was advocacy for a more responsible return to travel and determination to support collective action in the broader tourism industry. Collaboration over competition.

This drove their decision to share their IP with their competitors. Intrepid’s “Animal Welfare Policy toolkit” and their “10 Step Quick Start Guide To Decarbonising Your Travel Business” are both resources they’ve made publicly available, supporting their competitors to restart their operations in a more sustainable and responsible manner.

They’re inspired to drive change

Purposeful leaders are inspired to make things better. Emotions drive them – sometimes positive, like love of people or planet. Sometimes negative.

Mike Smith was driven by anger. Discovering mountains of plastic waste as he and his now-wife travelled to some of the most far-flung places on this earth, horrified them and drove them to create Zero Co, a household and personal care products company on a mission to un-trash the planet. Zero Co is disrupting the category by stopping the production of new single use plastics and cleaning up the current plastic waste that is in our ocean.

They’re ambitious about impact

Purposeful leaders set bold impact goals; a deliberate strategy that forces their people to think differently about the business, driving innovation.

They’re also ambitious about profitability, recognising that profitable businesses are better able to scale their impact. Not profit as purpose. Profit through purpose.

Carolyn Butler-Madden, author of two books on Social Purpose, “For Love & Money” and “Path To Purpose”, is a purpose specialist. Learn more at