Purpose and Personal Leadership


Reflections by Margaret O’Keeffe

Salt welcomes new columnist Margaret O’Keeffe, CEO of Curious Leaders, an international coaching consultancy that connects the dots across leadership, culture and capability. A seasoned communications maven, Margaret specialises in strategic identity management and is an industry expert in personal and organisational transformation.

The recent plethora of books and articles about the subject of Purpose remind me of a ‘Be the Change’ Conference I attended in London back in 2005. That experience made a significant impact on my life.

I was introduced to an NGO there called The Pachamama Alliance.  It was originally formed to exchange indigenous wisdom in Ecuador (Achuar tribe) with 21st century business and legal know-how (via U.S. based experts).  This is to help the Achuar defend their rainforest (and our planet’s lungs) while they provide education on the importance of preserving mother earth or ‘Pachamama’.

Their visionary dream based on shamanic prophecy is to have the eagle of the North (representing C21st technology) and the condor of the South (representing indigenous wisdom) fly in the same sky together.

As a result of this alliance a multimedia Symposium was created, the purpose of which is to ‘bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on the planet’.  When I first heard this I thought it was the most inspiring purpose I had ever encountered.

The Symposium addressed today’s environmental, social and spiritual crises: Where are we? How did we get here? Where do we go from here? It was created before Vanity Fair came out with its first green issue and the media became deluged by the subject of Climate Change.    Al Gore was just beginning to take his slides about an ‘Inconvenient Truth’ around the world.

The environmental statistics on where we ‘are’ (in terms of impending global ecocide) were fresh, and alarming: 90% of the big fish in the ocean already gone? Lions on the verge of extinction? Rainforests depleted at the rate of two football fields per second?  I was outraged and got trained up as a Symposium facilitator at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California.

After facilitating a few symposiums I noticed that most of the people who showed up were white and quite socially privileged.  I started to wonder if any of us leading this could genuinely relate to the Social Justice piece of the Symposium’s purpose.  There was a lot of talking and commiserating about Environmental Sustainability but few tangible results about what had been done to counteract the impending ecocide.   And finally, there was little being done within the context of the Symposium to address Spiritual Fulfillment (as a way to counteract the grief and loss caused by manmade disasters).

There was also a belief at the time that talking to big corporations about these issues was a complete waste of time since for the most part they were the root cause of many of the problems.   Ironically this mindset contradicted the very purpose of the organisation.  Fortunately that particular belief has shifted in the past few years but ‘duality’ thinking (blaming and separating them/you vs. us/me) is, in my view, one of the most intractable leadership dilemmas of our time.  It is far easier to blame a low Gross National Happiness index on government or big business.  The fact is, like it or not we are all part of a collective quantum soup.

It’s a bit like the financial crisis of 2008 and what ultimately caused it.  While I’ll concede that there were some pretty bad apples in the banking industry let’s for one moment concede that taking out a mortgage based on 6x of one’s salary was not exactly grounded in reality.   

Speaking of apples, when we choose to eat fruit that’s out of season we create global demand for a convenience led food industry and this impacts our environment.  We vote with our wallets and are complicit with big business in terms of how we spend our money.  How many of us seriously question the investment and supply chain choices of the brands we purchase?

What some of us tend to forget as we mount our various soap boxes is that the legal reason a corporation exists is to deliver dividends to its shareholders.  In an ideal world the goal of any corporate purpose would be to generate profit while at the same time taking care of people and planet.  So, for instance selling cars that actually reduce emissions as opposed to faking it (I’m still getting over VW).

Yet, typically, we follow the herd until someone brave publicises a scandal a la Madoff.  And, generally speaking this is what a corporation waits for before instigating real change on the inside.  I’m not suggesting that we all turn into investigative reporters but what I do want to suggest is this.  Before blaming any institution for not living its purpose, have a good think about your own accountability.  Are you part of the problem or the solution?

In an effort to walk my own leadership talk on the Pachamama front I decided to help co-create a new Business Symposium to go beyond corporate responsibility tick boxes and encourage whole system transformation.  I vividly remember the first presentation with an executive board member of a global financial institution.  He loved it and suggested that we could do something together with the CSR department.

When I told him that it wasn’t a ‘CSR leadership initiative’ but a systemic one he responded that his company wasn’t ready for that.  To which I said, ‘actually no, you’re not ready for it – and that’s ok’.  I was frustrated yet understood his fear. It can be a lonely and risky path to go up against the corporate status quo.

So I acknowledged that the original Pachamama viewpoint on big business had some merit.  At the same time, I knew that there had to be other ways to engage entire organisations in a triple bottom line purpose.  And I, along with my colleagues at CuriousLeaders started to explore ways to do that.

I have to constantly remember to be compassionate not only with my clients and colleagues but also with myself.  Some ideas don’t work not because they aren’t good but because they haven’t been communicated empathically enough. As I learned from collaborating with the Pachamama Alliance, it helps to take a stand for what you believe in, not a divisive position. This helps generate a Purpose that will sustain you over time.

© Copyright Margaret O’Keeffe, 2016 All rights reserved


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Margaret is the CEO of CuriousLeaders, a London-based coaching consultancy firm that she co-founded in 2005. The firm specialises in strategic identity management and connects the dots across leadership, culture and capability. In her corporate career Margaret held multiple positions in the communications industry ranging from Managing Director (Mexico City and Los Angeles) at Ogilvy One to European Director, Strategic Services across 38 markets at FCB Worldwide. Today she partners with her clients in various roles as coach, facilitator, trainer, speaker, mentor and advisor. Margaret is a certified professional executive coach (CPCC) and faculty member of Telefónica Group’s corporate university. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Vassar College, U.S.A.


  1. I’m all for people being more I tune with why they want to preserve a healthy planet rather than just tick boxes.
    How do we join symposium