Writing a purpose statement doesn’t have to be reserved for life-changing events. Learn how to write a purpose statement or aspirational statement for your current project, and see how it shifts your thinking and jumpstarts your strategy.
Purpose statements are public declarations of your intention around a topic or idea. We often think of them as weighty subjects, reserved for politics or life-changing decisions. But in our consulting work we teach executives to write purpose statements for the projects they lead. Sometimes we call them aspirational statements, or provocative propositions. You can choose the language that’s comfortable for you. Regardless, the purpose statement format can be simple and doesn’t have to take long to write. We think you’ll find the results will ripple through your organization.
Here’s how to write a statement for your initiatives, and some samples we find compelling and inspiring.
Editor’s note: To our surprise, this article has become one of our most read. We’re glad so many people find it useful. Please note, however, that we are unable to provide individual advice on drafting purpose statements. If you are interested in our consulting services, please see Programs > Consulting.
How to Write a Purpose Statement: Characteristics of
Purpose statements are most compelling when they are written in the present tense, as if though the desired outcome is already happening. We find the best examples have three characteristics:
- They are provocative.
Purpose statements are powerful because they interrupt the status quo. The language of your aspirational statement should stretch and challenge what currently exists. This is why we sometimes call them “provocative propositions.”
- They are grounded.
At the same time, purpose statements cannot be fanciful. They have to be grounded in reality and built upon the strengths of the people, team or product they advance.
- They are really desired.
Finally, purpose statements generate results when they reflect something that is truly desired. It’s no use to write a manifesto for something that doesn’t excite emotion or meet a real need. A purpose statement is meant to motivate; motivation begins with desire.
How to Write a Purpose Statement: Four Steps to Your First Draft
With the three characteristics (above) in mind, it’s now time to write a first draft of your statement. Formats vary and there is no set length. As you’ll see from the examples we provide below, powerful statements can be quite short. (Sometimes that’s even better, as shorter explanations are more memorable.)
Consider gathering a few colleagues to join you in writing a purpose statement: working together to draft your statement will likely lead to stronger content, and will cement each participant’s commitment to the goal you espouse. Whether working in a group or alone, follow these steps:
- First, hold a brainstorming session to identify what you truly want. If working in a group, we recommend writing your project’s name on a flip chart paper hung on the wall, then giving each participant a stack of Post It Notes. Write individual ideas on your sticky note, and hang them on the flip chart paper. Continue for 15 minutes or more, until the paper is covered in ideas. If working alone, you can brainstorm on a notepad or on your computer. However, we recommend trying the Post It Note approach even when working individually – you’ll see why in the next step.
- Next, identify the most compelling and desired aspects of the future you want. Some of the ideas you brainstormed will seem more powerful, more inspirational, or more visionary than the others. Rearrange the Post It Notes to group those ideas together. Think of these items as the key “ingredients” you would like to see represented in the statement for your initiative. Once you’ve rearranged the ideas, ask these questions: Are they provocative? Grounded? Desired? Revise accordingly. (At this point, you can remove all the Post It Notes that didn’t make the final cut, but don’t throw them away. They can be a great resource for next-level thinking for the initiative.)
- Now, create a first draft of your aspirational statement. Try to write two or three killer sentences that really capture the concept, rather than pages of text that outlines it in details. As you write, revisit the characteristics to make sure your language is provocative, grounded, and desired. Draft your sentences in the present tense, as if it were already happening.
- Test, revise, and publicize your purpose statement.Finally, you need to review your statement and make sure it’s right before taking it to the public. This final step can be a few minutes long, or can take place over months, depending on the scope of your project.To test your statement, share it with others and ask for their reactions. Does it compel and inspire? Does it challenge the status quo? Could the language be more evocative or engaging? Does it reflect a real desire that others share? Take the feedback you receive from others and revise the manifesto to make it stronger.Then, take the statement to the public. Find the right channels to Publicize your statement based on the focus and scope of your initiative. It might be a simple as writing the statement on a flip chart paper and hanging it in a conference room; emailing it to project team members; or putting it at the top of all your planning documents. For bigger initiatives, you can make your public declaration on your website, through social media, or as an announcement to the press or at a public event.
Why is publicizing important? Doing so serves several purposes: it cements your intention and creates accountability for project leaders and participants; it build excitement and energy for the initiative; it creates awareness with your audience, who can show their support for your ideas or cause; and the conversations that occur are an important spark in making the future you want a reality.
Purpose Statement Examples
Does the idea of writing a statement still seem too daunting? The following examples may share how simple the process, and outcome can be. In each case, the relatively simple language and concepts resulted in powerful changes for the individual or organization.
Example 1: Setting a New Personal Direction
In this example, a senior leader wanted to work toward becoming a more positive influence in her professional and personal life. She followed a similar process as outlined above to write a statement that reflected who she wanted to become. As you read the short statement below, consider how the individual used the present tense:
I am a mold-breaker. Each day at work, I help my colleagues raise their horizon by asking positively powerful questions that inspire and point us toward a better future. I turn negativity into inspiring dreams for the future and then equip my team with the resources they need to get the job done. At home, I support my family through a belief in the best of who they are. My kids know they are deeply loved; my spouse feels appreciated every day – I know his strengths, I see the best in him, I am eager to live out the future we’ve designed together.
Example 2: Creating a New Organization
This example looks at a broader challenge: launching a significant new program through our Center.
In this case, our team wrote the statement with very specific goals in mind. As you read, consider how the new vision is established on the strengths the organization has exhibited in the past.
We are changing the way business is done and the way leadership is taught in business schools around the country and around the world, all from a values-driven perspective. Our Master of Science in Values-Driven Leadership (MSVDL) Program is the newest example of how our center makes innovative, values-driven leadership education accessible to business leaders. The program is a digital-gaming-based program, benchmarked against the world’s best leadership programs. It is tailored for managers and executives, offered in multiple formats, and has a modular, stackable design so it can be used with companies in executive education.
Example 3: Defining What We Mean By Our Corporate Values
In our final example, we share how aspirational statements can be used to define corporate values. This example comes from a regional non-profit who wanted their diverse workforce to have a shared understanding of the seven core values the organization identified. Team members used a process similar to the one outlined above to create short statements for each value. Here we share an example that was offered to the participants. As you read it, consider how it is short but compelling, and how it challenges team members to think differently about their work.
Core Value: Creativity
We live and breathe creativity: we find creative solutions to problems, bring new ideas to familiar programs, and celebrate the unique and colorful people with whom we work.
Why Purpose Statements Matter
We often use the phrase “words create worlds” to describe a phenomena we’ve observed: once groups get the right language around a project or initiative, the strategy, planning, and execution of that initiative becomes much easier. The words (in this case, your manifesto) created the world (your initiative). Statements help clarify what you really want; they align team members and inspire action; they empower and elevate.
Authors Jim Ludema, Ph.D., and Amber Johnson teach writing provocative propositions as part of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership’s Appreciative Inquiry Executive Workshop Series. Jim is the co-founder and director of the Center and a professor of global leadership. Amber is the Center’s chief communications officer and senior research associate.