The Purpose Paradox: Leadership — Not practising what you preach

Purpose Paradox“Be the change you want to see in the world.” — What Mahatma Gandhi wrote of the individual, perhaps applies even more to organisations founded to make the world more ecological, social, just and peaceful. NGOs ought to exemplify what they want to see in the world in their own, self-designed world. Unfortunately, this is not always the case! Hence the Purpose Paradox.

Those who want to improve the world, often fail within their own four walls.

People looking for meaning are drawn to work with NGOs

Doing something meaningful is what NGO workers mention first when asked what they like best about their job. And yes, there are dedicated people working in NGOs, with a lot of passion for meaningful things.

In my experience, in the vast majority of cases, they are kind people who really want to make the world a better place. The fact that, despite the intentions of the organisation and its staff, there is often suffering, frustration and stress, even burnout, is therefore “astonishing”. Why is it that more often than one might think, NGOs have the paradox of not living internally for what they strive externally?

So why do many NGOs suffer from the purpose paradox?

Let me say at this point that what I am writing here is written as someone who has failed several times and is constantly striving, not as a know-it-all. I would just like to point out the danger of this ominous paradox, which Dorothe Liebig aptly calls the ‘Purpose Paradox’ [1], i.e. “Not doing oneself what one preaches”.

The ends justify the means

Whatever it takesIn my opinion, one of the causes is that the end all too easily justifies the means — probably because one’s end is sacred. Namely: saving the planet and/or humanity! And for this sacred end, one is allowed to do almost anything:

  • human rights organisations that discriminate employees,
  • development organisations that act in a colonialist manner,
  • peace organisations that wage small wars internally over the right strategy.

And the bigger the organisation or the higher the purpose, the more likely the Purpose Paradox occurs. It can apply within any organisation (not just an NGO) where a blinkered pursuit of the goal can lead to collateral damage along the way.

The urgency of the situation takes no prisoners

Besides the “usual human reasons” such as rivalry, ambition and a thirst for recognition, another reason is the pressure of time. A few thoughts on this:

The urgency requirement is ‘implemented’ in the form of hecticness and, if need be, justifies — politely speaking — any rudeness. But the pressure of urgency narrows the horizon to tunnel vision and sets the focus on short-term effects that often only seem to serve the purpose. This reduces the perception of each other and the awareness of each other. Everything must be fast, quick, short and concise. So, only very briefly is a phrase heard every day.

Becoming obsessed with being right

Moreover, a “purpose fundamentalism” is taking over, as Dorothe Liebig calls it in her essay. She writes,

“…if we are firmly convinced that we have the solutions and the people around us are the problem, this will affect our relationships and actions. We become dogmatic and obsessed with being right…”

And so, we have to assert ourselves as quickly as possible. This can be seen, for example, in quite widespread project or organisational egoism (the former within an organisation, the latter in cooperation between organisations). That is, when one’s own is always the most important thing, other things are ignored.

Right to be wrongAnd it is somewhat disturbing when the capitalist system is castigated, but one also strives for more and more, and faster and faster, wanting short-term ‘profitability’ (output) — the ‘campaign profit’ comes before the well-being of the employees. A paradox.

Break out of the ‘race to be right’ — Try to slow down

In the social debate, the urgent should be complemented by the slow: Slow is beautiful!

In principle, a great added value of NGOs is to bring humanity, compassion, attentiveness, naturalness, thoughtfulness and solidarity into social debates.

A now-or-never attitude leads to a battle for resources

Yet instead of these positive traits, the temptation is to add to the pressure of urgency by setting overambitious goals with scarce resources. This leads to competitive rather than cooperative behaviour. This ‘over-commitment’ leads into a tunnel where there is no space or time to pause and take a step back, because you tell yourself that saving the planet is all about this one project. And it is “now or never”. Which is not always entirely wrong and thus a dilemma.

Carefully harness the ‘ruthless passion’ of committed people

Turning PointAn organisation can counteract this and decelerate by investing in culture. Among other things, do this my offering:

  • spaces for exchange and relationship building,
  • honouring ideas and commitment,
  • investing in training and learning transfer,
  • and minimising bureaucratic requirements to alleviate time pressure,.

It is this time pressure that builds silos around the lone wolves, not a lack of will to collaborate (see column on organisational culture). The purpose paradox is that an organisation needs passionate committed people who are on fire for their subject (and can become ruthless to themselves and others in the process). Involving them well is an important art.

Slow down and reconsider your goals

Cultivating a certain slowness means striving for a culture of resonance, cohesion, fairness, learning as well as with a “compatible diversity”: Investing in the soil for good fruit, so to speak. And being less purposive or purpose-driven also means adjusting overarching goals as needed. Behind goals are intentions, that is, what one wants to achieve.

Goals must sometimes be adapted to realities, not vice versa. Goal and intention are like destination and direction, and it is the direction that matters most. Because sometimes a diversion is the shortest route: purpose should be a guide, not a yardstick or a corset.

Bring trust to help steer the organisation

The more one sees an organisation as a machine, i.e. as a means to an end, the greater the danger that the end will mutate into dogma.

Trust to steer an organisationSeeing the organisation as a machine is a catchy image. It is not always wrong, but it is far from sufficient. It is true that every system contains mechanical parts, but where people are part of a system, it always becomes complex. In other words, the systemic view is more complex, ambiguous and often troublesome. Seen in this light, one cannot simply steer and control an organisation, only influence it. And in doing so, trust the employees: According to systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, trust is the more suitable means than control for dealing with complexity [2].

Distribute power and responsibilities to nudge behaviour

Structurally, for example, distribute power and work more with responsibilities and less with hierarchies. Influencing people is often best done with small, clever interventions, or “nudging”. This starts with a monthly team lunch and doesn’t stop with the introduction of meeting-free days. In other words, creating vitalising spaces in which employees can relate to each other.

Organisational culture is therefore also the way in which attempts are made to satisfy employees’ basic needs such as closeness and distance, freedom and security as well as autonomy and belonging. Like the fast and the slow, or the short and the long term, these pairs are only superficially opposites — rather, they are mutually dependent. Day does not exist without night.

Leadership and culture are vital to tackle the purpose paradox

In the words of Dorothe Liebig:

“Organisational culture is not a feel-good moment, is not a soft factor but rather a vital factor, a context that creates or destroys vitality and values…”.

Necessary especially in a volatile, uncertain world like the current one: Renewable energy and climate protection are thus also necessary internally. The energy of employees is not nourished by purpose alone, but by an interplay between sense-making, resonance, appreciation and accompaniment (e.g. [3]).

Terracotta ArmyAnd I believe that the “leadership question” is central to purpose paradox. Whether hierarchical or not, self-organised or otherwise: It needs people in the organisation who have the task of accompanying committed people. The keyword is “coaching”: enabling self-reflection (e.g. with regard to stress reduction [4] and maintaining commitment [5]), taking distance and being able to fit in (e.g. team skills [6]). This is the organisation’s glue — for less shit in the day.

PS: Giving and thus having time to reflect — alone and with others (mentoring or peer learning for example) and thus the question of “leading an organisation” and being able to fit in (not subordinate) are key points and a topic for another column.


[1] «THE PURPOSE PARADOX»- Organizations with a vital purpose must be cautious with the culture they create inside themselves”, Dorothe Liebig,, 2022

[2] “Vertrauen: Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität», Niklas Luhmann, utb Verlag, 2014 («Trust: A Mechanism of Social Complexity Reduction»)

[3] “A Culture of Happiness” Tho Ha Vinh, 2022, Paralax Press: This inspiring book is also particularly fitting here, as Tho Ha Vinh has long recognised the Purpose Paradox as an inherent problem of many NGOs. He was most recently the programme director of the Gross National Happiness Center in Bhutan and is now transferring the principle of the “gross happiness product” (which has replaced the gross domestic product in Bhutan) to organisations and schools as part of the Eurasia Learning Center.

[4] “Workplace Stress Management – 11 Best Strategies and Worksheets”, Jeremy Sutton, Positive Psychology, 2021: Like Tho Ha Vinh, Sutton suggests that mindfulness is best prteactice for stress reduction in the three stress fields of job demands, namely (a) task (e.g. feeling overloaded); (b) role (role conflicts, ambiguities); and (c) relationship (leadership and personality conflicts). See a useful self-questionnaire template.

[5] “Flow at Work: How to Boost Engagement in the Workplace”, Beata Souders, Positive Psychology, 2019. Her conclusion: the more satisfied employees are, the more committed they are. And they are more satisfied the better the quality of relationships and leadership.

[6] Studies on teamwork show that good collaboration can lead to improved productivity, creativity and job satisfaction, especially when team members feel a sense of belonging and purpose, which is more pronounced the more supportive, trust-building, learning and inclusive the environment is. See a summary of what to do and avoid for teamwork (from: Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Keith Sawyer, Basic Books, 2008 and: The secrets of great teamwork, Martine Haas und Mark Mortensen, Harvard Business Review, 2016)

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About Kuno Roth

Now retired, Kuno was leader of the global mentoring and coaching programme at Greenpeace International. Before that, he was head of education at Greenpeace Switzerland for 25 years. Kuno continues to support Greenpeace, serves as Co-President of the Swiss NGO Solafrica and as a mentor in the Women's Solar Project in Nicaragua. He holds a PhD in chemistry and works as a human ecologist, learning expert and writer.

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