headshot of Tanveer Naseer with a diverse female leader looking up with determination to show that this podcast episode is about finding passion and purpose in leadership


Finding Passion & Purpose in Leadership

Is passion or purpose in leadership more important? Leadership expert and TED-talker Tanveer Naseer dives into the importance of purpose in leadership—and why passion might not be enough.

Publish Date: May 2, 2023

Episode Length: 28 minutes

/ Resources / Podcasts / Finding Passion & Purpose in Leadership

In this Episode

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, we interview leadership expert Tanveer Naseer. He joins us to talk about why finding passion and purpose in leadership is so important for leaders.


Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, it’s your host Beth Almes, and today we’re running a special episode of the Leadership 480 podcast. We’re sharing an episode that we originally published on February 9, 2021, about finding passion and purpose in leadership.

Over the past few months I've been working with our research and analytics team to publish our Global Leadership Forecast 2023, which is one of the world's largest studies on leadership. And here's the thing, one of the findings kept nagging at my brain, which was around the relationship between purpose and engagement at work.

If you're anything like me, you've probably heard the drumbeat from the higher-ups in your own companies and in the media that we need to focus on engaging our teams to get more done, especially as most of us are going through a lot of changes right now. Although when are we not in a period of transformation these days?

And we're also being charged with retaining talent as so many people are keen to move jobs.

Anyway, with that backdrop we found in the study that purpose is one of the biggest drivers of engagement. People who feel a strong sense of purpose at work are 9X more likely to be engaged in their role and 2.4X more likely to say they'll stay at their companies for at least the next year.

And yet, a lot of leaders struggle to find a sense of purpose in our work, even among C-Suite leaders, which you would think would be incredibly purpose-driven given that they are driving the rest of the company. And they're probably spending tons of hours at the office, but only about 63% of C-Suite leaders say they felt a strong sense of purpose, meaning that about one in three is not feeling highly purposeful at work.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? Unsurprisingly, the lower you get in the ranks, the less purpose you see, and only about 41% of frontline leaders say they feel a strong sense of purpose at work.

And here's what really got me though.

Sometimes when you think of purpose or hear other people talking about purpose, you're really thinking about, you know, well, those are the jobs for people who are kind of saving the world at work, whether you're in healthcare or something like teaching, maybe. But when we looked at industries to see which ones had people who were really purpose-driven and what they were doing.

Agriculture and retail topped the list. Healthcare was a little further down and things like education were way far down on the list.

Which tells me a couple of things. First, no matter what we do, we can find purpose in our work if we know how to look at it.

And two, we're burning out a lot of people who should be finding meaning in their work but are struggling right now.

So that brings me back to one of my favorite podcast discussions of all time with Tanveer Naseer here on what it really means to find purpose at work and why it's not the same as following your passion.

And when you find that purpose at work, you're going to get that energy you need to really succeed. Take a listen:

Beth Almes:

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. I am so excited about our guest today because I think we just all need a moment to renew our energy for our work, and our passion, and remind us why we're doing what we do. 

So to talk to us today about passion and purpose, we have Tanveer Naseer with us. You might know Tanveer from his TED Talk, Forget Passion, Purpose Is the Real Spice of Life. He's also the CEO of Tanveer Naseer Leadership and has traveled the world giving keynotes on leadership. You might even know him from his podcast, the Leadership Biz Cafe, and he's also the author of Leadership Vertigo. So with that intro, Tanveer, I am so excited to have you with us here today. Welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Tanveer Naseer:

Thanks Beth. Appreciate you having me on.

Beth Almes:

I have to start by asking you about finding passion at work. We so often get the advice to follow our passion. If we find our passion, we'll never work a day in our lives. But I've heard you say that passion is really not the secret, so why not?

Tanveer Naseer:

I love that you're bringing this up at the start of our conversation, Beth, because the problem whenever I hear people talking about you have to follow your passion, the problem is that we're making the assumption that we should only have one thing we're passionate about, that there's only one thing that we should care about or get excited about.

The truth is that we should really have multiple passions. There should be multiple different things that we're passionate about, but we don't necessarily have to go and say, "I'm going to dedicate most of my life to that one thing, and I'm going to forego everything else." Then the problem with passion when we say, "Follow your passion" is that it's focusing only on what we uniquely care about. What's our interests? It's very limited.

A great way to think about this is if you're a sports fan. When we were able to go to work and we hang out at the water cooler, and you try talking to sports with someone who doesn't care about sports, or they don't follow your particular sport, you're going to have a very limited interaction.

The other thing that I see as being the problem why we mistakenly assume that following our passionate work is the key to success is because we look at successful people, take whoever you use as your role model of success that you get inspiration from. We see whenever they talk about the work they do or what they're trying to accomplish, there's clearly a lot of passion behind them. They seem very excited, very engaged in it.

We say, "Well clearly, they're pursuing this because this is what they're passionate about." But what we don't realize is that the passion that we're seeing is just the product of them doing something that's tied to their internal sense of purpose. So, we're seeing the end product of a lot of hard work and intentional focus on doing something that truly matters to them. It's externally being manifested in showing this extensive passion and drive.

Beth Almes:

Oh, that is so powerful. I think your point around passion and so often I think of it as like what you love to do, but so many times in your job, you end up doing things that you've found you loved, but you wouldn't have known that in advance. You wouldn't pick that career or pick that thing out of a lineup, but you find out that you can really find some love for your work and purpose there.

So, as we talk about purpose, I wanted to ask you about it in a couple of different ways, knowing we're talking here to leaders. The first is for leaders who are looking to find their own purpose. As you've worked with and talk to and coach leaders, how do you see leaders finding purpose for themselves in their jobs, and what obstacles often get in their way?

Tanveer Naseer:

Yeah, I get this question a lot because in some of my keynotes, I do talk about the importance of doing purpose led work. So, there's always that leader that's out there, someone who's been doing it for a couple of years, and they ask the question of like, "Well I don't know if I can find that kind of meaningful work in the things that I'm doing right now."

A lot of times it's because we tend to think of this kind of idea of doing purpose led work, of meaningful work, it has to be glamorous or exciting. This has to be something that if you tell somebody about it, they're going, "Oh my god, I can't believe that. I'm so impressed by what you're doing." The truth of the matter is that it doesn't have to be glamorous or exciting. It's really something that's tied to something that internally drives us, that internal motivation where we show up and want to dedicate our best.

A lot of times what I tell leaders is, "Think of a time. It could even be before you were a leader, on certain projects or tasks where you got assigned, and for whatever reason, you just felt compelled to deliver your best. You just were so driven. Like if you saw something was a problem, you would step in to fix it, or you would step in to say, 'How can I help?' Even though it wasn't necessarily your responsibility, and you weren't looking to do it for credit, you just wanted to make sure this succeeded."

These are moments where we can get that clarity of saying, "Here's something that just really matters to us." A lot of times when I have these leaders ask me this question, I often will tell them, "Let's do a 'this is your life' type of exercise, where I want you to look back at those moments in your career, both before you became a leader and now as a leader, where you really felt driven, where there was some project or some initiative that you were a part of, and you really did your best work. Like you still look back on it fondly and say, 'You know what? That's when I felt alive.'"

That's where you can identify your purpose. Now you have a clear sense of this is the kind of work I should be doing because this is what matters to me. Once you've identified it, now we can roll up our sleeves. Because now you can take that and say, "Now I know what kind of work I need to do, which is going to help me bring out the best of me," which as a leader is going to help you bring out the best in those you lead.

The way you do that is then by creating a long-term goal or a vision that's bigger than you. This is something that you know when you communicate it to your team, they're going to get excited because they can see their role in it. They could see their part in being a part of this. Knowing that we're not talking about, okay, a 12% increase in market share, okay something, but now that's just arbitrary. Like why 12%? "Well, we got 6% last year, so let's go for 12 and double." So, it's kind of random. It could be any number.

Something that's more that people can see the value of, and they can want to tie their own best efforts to. Then once you have that vision, when you start having to create those goals of how we're going to achieve this, you got to ask yourself, "Why does this matter?" Are we doing this because it's in response to things that are happening around us or to you? Or is it helping you fulfill that promise you made to your employees with that long term goal and vision for how you want to make things better?

Then the third thing is you've got to learn to tap into your real strengths and especially the real strengths of your employees. Meaning when we delegate stuff, you shouldn't be delegating stuff saying, "Okay, I got all this on my plate. Oh, you know what? Sally, she's really good at this. I'm going to delegate this out to her. Look, I'm a great leader. I'm delegating out work." You do well at this, so you're going to look good in the rest of the team's eyes, but this might not be necessarily what matters to her.

So that very exercise you did at the start, where you're trying to figure out what's that narrative of the things that you did well, this is your time where you have to help your employees do that same exercise. Once they've figured it out, and you've helped them figure it out, now let's start delegating work that taps into those real strengths. Now suddenly, everyone in your team is going to be succeeding because they genuinely care about the work they're doing.

Beth Almes:

I think that's just incredibly powerful of finding that purpose in your job, engaging others to share in that purpose. I'm curious if you think, can anyone find a true sense of purpose in your job? Or do you think it's some jobs will be purposeful jobs, whereas others will probably always be a means to a paycheck. Do you feel like all jobs have the opportunity for that purpose?

Tanveer Naseer:

Oh, well here's where my background in science comes to play. I love to go beyond what I think and say, "Let's not look at what I think or anecdotally. Let's go to the science." There's a lot of researchers who've actually done work looking into the nature of work, and motivation, and why are certain people in certain jobs are excelling and others aren't.

A lot of the research has shown that all of us approach our work in one of three ways. We either view our work as being a job, a career, or a calling. Now it's easy for us to see if you're a firefighter, or if you're a doctor, or today with the pandemic going on, you're a healthcare worker, you're a long-term care facilitator, someone who works in the long-term facilities, you're an essential worker. We can see these people very much thinking that their work is being their calling. But for the rest of us, to your question, Beth, can the rest of us see our jobs as being a calling, like as we see purpose in the work we do?

Well, these researchers actually did. I always like to pull this out. Currently right now in the context of the pandemic, it's not the best example because we obviously appreciate these people as being essential workers. But they looked at hospital cleaners, and outside of a thing like a pandemic, we could see that being a hospital cleaner is not necessarily like a work that we're going to think of as being exciting or glamorous.

They interviewed hospital cleaners at various hospitals. Not surprisingly, a third of them said, "You know what? It's just a job. I'm just here to collect the paycheck. I just want to get this job done so I can go home and live my life." Another third said, "No, I see this as a career. I could see myself dedicating my life to my career in this job, and then building a nice nest egg so I can retire, and then live the second chapter of my life."

The interesting thing is they actually had a third of the people they interviewed actually say, "No, this is my calling. This is where I can make a difference. I believe in the vision of this hospital. We're here to take care of people when they are at their most vulnerable. I see my role in making sure we're creating an environment that allows people to heal."

So, what we could see here is that your sense of purpose is not derived simply by what you do. It's by how you choose to view what you do. And as leaders, that's really one of the important things that we have to do. Are you communicating to your employees that what they do, the importance of it, the impact it's having on not just the team or their colleagues, but on the organization as a whole, and tying it to their own sense of purpose of what it is that matters to them, it's going to make them feel like I made a difference?

Because look, we're all going to have bad days. We're all going to have days where we feel like we're just shuffling papers. So this is where again where passion can fail us because on those days it's hard to feel passionate because we just feel like we're doing mundane menial tasks. 

But if we realize that we're looking at it from the end game, the long-term perspective, this is just one brick in that wall we're building for this foundation for what we're trying to create. Then it's easier for us to accept that mundane day, that bad day we had at work, because the next day we know we have to show up and make up for it because what we're trying to do here truly matters.

Beth Almes:

I think it's so powerful. As you were talking about that, I was thinking too, of just the reverse, if you thought, what if no one did what you do or your job? So in the case of hospital cleaning workers, if no one did that, where would we be? How awful would that be?

Tanveer Naseer:


Beth Almes:

Yeah, if no one were doing it, it would be really put us in a tough spot. In your TED Talk, you shared a story about a leader who connected your job to purpose and helped you see that. I was wondering if you could share how that experience affected you and how leaders can do a better job helping their teams find a purpose?

Tanveer Naseer:

Yeah, it was an interesting job because it was a summer job working in the warehouse for a pharmaceutical dispensary. It was in the basement of the building. Imagine I was a teenager spending my summers in a windowless basement. But even now all these years later, it was one of the best jobs I ever had. I never saw the light of day. I'd drive there in the morning. I'd go downstairs into the basement. I couldn't tell if it was raining or sunny outside.

So talk about a job that's not glamorous. It certainly wasn't very exciting. We were doing inventory, stocking shelves, and so forth, lots of paperwork. This is also when we had the dial up internet with that screeching sound. I had to endure a lot of that screeching sound as we would be sending out PO orders to the different vendors.

And yet, it turned out to be one of the most impactful jobs I ever had. Why? Because the leader I worked for, he made me appreciate the contribution I was making, of how I was making a difference. If I wasn't there to make sure we had medications in inventory, when these patients came to fill in their prescriptions, they wouldn't get the medication they need. They wouldn't be able to get the care that they required.

It suddenly changes you from thinking, "Okay, I'm just trying to make sure we have X number of product on a shelf," to realizing, "This is impacting people's wellbeing." So again, it's really pivoting how we view what we do. It's amazing how even the most mundane jobs where we can think, because again, it's not glamorous, not exciting, "Well, this doesn't matter. Who really cares?"

I remember one example I'd read a number of years ago about a catheter manufacturing company, where they had very low levels of employee engagement. They had a leader come in and put it upon the organization's marketing team. The leader said, "I want you to collect our stories." They said, "What stories?" He said, "The stories of our patients, patients who've benefited from using our product. How has it improved their lives? How has it made a difference? Has it reduced their pain? Has it made their lives more manageable? Share their stories, get their pictures."

And they did, and they thought, "Okay, we're going to use this marketing copy to sell out to doctors to use our product." No, instead he took all that stuff, and he plastered them all along the lobby walls of the building. So when his employees would walk in, they would see these stories and they'd see the faces of these patients, and then he would tell them, "Every time you walk through, these are the people you're helping through the work you're doing. These are people whose lives are better because of you."

They would actually change the pictures over time just to get people to not look at them for a first few weeks and then after a while they tune them out. Like those values boards people put up in companies where we say, "These are our values." No one reads it. People couldn't even tell you what it says on there. They would actually change them after a point just to keep it front of mind: this is why we do what we do.

It's amazing when you have a leader who's able to do that, the impact it creates on you is to make you realize that it doesn't matter what work I do, there is always an opportunity for me to contribute in a manner that matters. So that's the impact he had on me that to never think that it's the job that matters. It's really how you approach your job and what you're willing to contribute yourself that really makes the difference.

Beth Almes:

I'm curious, what got your passion going to study this topic?

Tanveer Naseer:

Well, it's interesting. See, my TED Talk actually, Beth, was inspired by a question like this. Where I had just given a keynote, and during the Q and A, someone asked me, "I'm just curious to know what your background is?" I thought, "What a fun opportunity," so I turned the question on... I love doing this to be honest. I always like to turn questions around... and say, "Well, I'd like to know how many of you have an idea of what my background is." Some people thought I worked in corporate. Some people thought I probably had an MBA, maybe worked at a startup, and so on and so forth.

Then I said, "Okay, that's interesting, everyone kind of say that's probably what it was." And everyone's nodding their heads. And I said, "So how many would be surprised to know that actually I'm educated as a pathologist?" Well, you could imagine the look of shock and surprise on everyone's faces. I think the shock was, "Wait, you're a pathologist?" And I think the other half was, "Wait, what's a pathologist?"

Beth Almes:

Right, and just in case anyone is questioning, I'm not saying I am, but if you want to say what a pathologist is?

Tanveer Naseer:

This is somebody who's involved in the studying of diseases and in the treatment. In my case, it was the diagnosis of people for their various cancer therapies. So that's originally where I started. Then from there, I actually went on to work in the hospitals, treating patients and couples for infertility, which I did mention in my TED Talk. 

The one perk I had was when my wife would, if we had somebody she'd meet in the grocery store, or a colleague, then I'd be talking to her husband. And he'd say, "So what do you do for a living?" I used to have this little play I used to have with a dead pan straight face and say, "I make babies for a living." The conversation just stops. My wife would always look at me and say, "What did you say to him?" Because she'd see the look.

Beth Almes:

I bet she thought that, yeah.

Tanveer Naseer:

Okay, I'm going to just stand next to my wife now. I don't know what's going on over here. But in the process of sharing that story, the question came up of, "Well, then how did that lead to what I'm doing right now?" I did this on the spot. I did not even have this answer because no one had ever asked it to me.

I said, "I guess I realize when I think about it and as I'm sharing my story with you, that if I look at all these jobs I've done, they were all tied by a common thread of wanting to help people be better. I started working in pathology because I wanted to help people who were suffering from cancer find a way to get treatment, to beat this disease once and for all. Then I moved onto helping couples be better by being able to live up to that dream of starting their family. Now it's migrated on into leadership where I want to help people be that kind of leader that's going to inspire and bring out the best in those they lead."

So, I think, again, this actually ties into this whole conversation we're having about your purpose. What is that internal drive you have, when it's touched on, when it's ignited, when you have that sparked, you just want to deliver your best. It's something you genuinely care about. It's not about the accolades. It's not about the glory. It's not about the paycheck. It's about knowing you're doing the work that matters to you because you're putting your best self out there to help others in some form or some capacity.

Beth Almes:

I think that's really what it's all about for so many of these leaders. At our company, we work with leaders as well. It's amazing, the ripple effect of it. If one leader can be better, all the people that their life touches, it grows and grows, and it is really rewarding work. 

You're right. So, for my last question, and you had shared a little bit about one leader who had an impact on you, but I do ask all of my guests on the show, what was a moment of leadership that had a big impact on you and your life, whether it was for good or for bad to say, "Oh gosh, I never want to be anything like that."

Tanveer Naseer:

You know what? I'm going to actually change the conversation. I'm going to share one of my failures as a leader because that was a moment of clarity for me. Because I think that's also very important that we share those. In one of my roles as a leader, I had many different teams that I was overseeing. One of them was the cleaning crew that clean some of the laboratory facilities we had.

I remember I wanted to make sure, again, as we've been discussing, I wanted them to make sure that they appreciate and understood the value of what they're doing. Because I knew that they wouldn't necessarily understand some of the science, some of the experiments we're doing. So, I wanted to make sure that they appreciate this is why it's important that you're doing this. This is why we need more of this and hey, this team's going to require this glassware to be cleaned by then for this, that, and the other.

I remember there was a senior-level director. Before I had arrived there, this was part of his responsibility was to oversee the cleaning crew. He was like a mentor to me when I started there to help me learn the ropes about the organization and so forth. We used to have a lot of conversations in his office. One time he decided to call me into his office. I go in there expecting another type of chit chat about leadership and stuff. He says to me, "You know what? I have to break some news to you. I've actually gotten some complaints from the cleaning crew about you."

I was like shocked. I was like, "Wait, what's wrong? What did I do wrong?" First of all, I was shocked that they actually went to their former boss instead of coming to me. But I was like, "Okay, I want to hear it," because I was thinking like, "Maybe I'm being too technical in my explanations of the stuff and so forth."

He said that they were feeling like disrespected by me. They felt like I was not listening to them. I was so horrified because this was the absolute, absolute opposite of what I was trying to create. Here I was trying to make them feel valued. Then for what I was actually doing was making them feel not seen, not heard, not appreciated. What I came to realize from that conversation, and then when I actually went, and I was going to go talk to them and he said, "No, no, don't talk to them now, wait a few days."

I think he did it in part because he was not sure, even though I was showing horror and not taking it on the defensive, but just being almost ashamed, like, "This is not what I wanted to do." But I think he was more afraid like he said, "Think about what I've said to you." 

I thought about it a couple of days. I'm glad I did because I realized the problem I was doing, and if I had gone right then and there, I would have repeated the problem. I was so busy focusing on telling them, that I wasn't giving them the space for me to listen to them. I wasn't giving them the space to contribute, so that they could have their own sense of ownership. I, in essence, had become a micromanager.

The very thing that we hear so much of people saying, and we always think of micromanagers as being people like, "Well, you have to do it a certain way for me to be happy about it." It's not always that. Sometimes it's just a matter of that we're so focused on trying to make our employees do well to succeed, or in my case, feel like their work matters, that we don't create that space where we're allowing them to feel heard and understood.

That's exactly what I was doing. I was so preoccupied with my communicating to them to let them know they feel valued, that I was not giving them the space to talk to me and say, "What are your concerns? What are the issues that you might be having? Maybe some of the teams are giving you more demands for stuff and you can't meet all the demands of different teams to get everything done in time and so forth. I'm not giving you that space. I'm just piling on top of it."

Having those few days where I would sit there and think about what it was, what was I doing that was creating that made me realize I always wanted the conversations. I'd say stuff. "Are we good? Great." I'd be all pumped and I'd be all excited. "Oh my God, I'm so excited. I went and gave them the rah-rah speech," like you see in sports films, where I'm going to come in as the coach and rally team and let's go out there and win. And then I just leave the room.

It was such an important moment because it really made me appreciate how your leadership is really not about you. It's really about listening to those that you lead and helping them, provide them with the resources, and provide them with the space, so that they can have agency and ownership over what they do because you're listening to what they need from you, rather than you making the assumption that you know, "Well, this is what they're going to need to succeed."

Beth Almes:

That's an incredible story. I think it's one of the moments that many leaders have that is pivotal, if you're lucky enough. It won't feel lucky in the moment, but you're lucky enough that someone tells you how you're being perceived, how versus what you actually think is going on. It's certainly, I think, jarring, and I think a lot of leaders can relate to that, but what a tremendous gift that can be and how you change for the future.

Tanveer Naseer:

Absolutely. It hurts. I'll be honest with people. I went to my desk and my shoulders were just slumped. I remember a few of my colleagues came to me. They saw I felt dejected because I felt like I had failed. I failed epically. I had done the absolute opposite of what I was trying to achieve. I thought, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this." I was filled with doubt and so forth.

I could see why it made sense from a seasoned leader's experience to say to me, "Look, you need time to own this. You have to own your mistake. Don't try to gloss over it. Own it." As I told my daughter, once I wrote about in my leadership blog, "Sometimes we have to own the suck. We have to give ourself time to own it and just marinate in it." So we can get that clarity of what we did wrong so we can go forward and do better the next time.

I'm happy to say that taking those few days and the conversation I had there afterwards, they talked to me more than they talked to their old boss after that because I had changed to such a degree where I was just so genuinely curious. It became less about me wanting to help them as I was more curious to understand their reality. That was such an important lesson for me to learn and to understand about leadership.

Beth Almes:

Yeah. And such a great testament to the power of feedback. I know it's often easier to say, "Oh, this is a bad leader." Most leaders have no idea when they're doing something bad. Unless someone has the courage to tell them, most people don't know. They have good intentions, but they have no idea when they're messing up.

Tanveer Naseer:


Beth Almes:

I thought the conversation today was just outstanding. I so appreciate you joining us today, Tanveer. It was a pleasure to have you on the show.

Tanveer Naseer:

Thank you so much, Beth. I really enjoyed the conversation. It was great. I love these questions that you shared because I think it's not something we hear, we talk a lot about in leadership, but it's really, really important for us to consider.

Beth Almes:

I could not agree more. Thank you to all of our listeners who spent part of their 480 with us today. I'm Beth Almes, reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.

Topics covered in this blog