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October 09, 2023 by Dede Henley

Why It's Crucial To Understand The Soul Of Your Business

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Previously published on Forbes

At the heart of every company is a mission, a purpose that propels the products or services offered. But a purpose is lifeless without people who believe in it. Without people who are passionate about what they are giving their time and talent to. These people, some called leaders, contribute their creativity, skill, and experience to fulfill a higher organizational purpose — its soul.

The essence of a business, its soul, embodies the core values, culture and mission that define the organization's identity. 

Let’s explore the concept of soul at work, why it matters and how you can nurture it more intentionally.

The Soul of Your Business

In an episode of the HBR IdeaCast podcast, Ranjay Gulati, a professor at Harvard Business School, noted that the most successful organizations tend to have this one thing in common: a soul. 

The idea of a business having a soul might sound abstract, but it's a concept that underpins the very essence of an organization. The soul of a business refers to those intrinsic qualities that make it unique, like the distinctive character traits of a person. For example, you might describe Apple as innovative, design-conscious, iconic and, maybe, secretive. Those are the qualities that reflect its soul.

Leaders often confuse soul with attraction and retention antics, like the freewheeling ethos of happy hours, all-nighters, flexible job descriptions, T-shirts, pizza, free soda, and family meals. Soul isn’t that. Organizational soul shapes the meaning of work, making work relational rather than transactional. 

And that has a powerful effect. Gulati’s research has explored what startups should focus on retaining as they grow and what more mature companies might want to think about getting back. The answer, he discovered, is their soul, their essence, their energy — that thing that first made employees, customers, and investors so excited to give their talent or money or both to the cause. 

An organization’s soul can mirror that of its leaders and is often demonstrated in the culture. Organizational culture, which is the collective beliefs, values, behaviors, and traditions in a workplace, plays a pivotal role in defining a business's soul. An empowering culture, one that aligns with corporate soul, reinforces a sense of purpose and meaning in work.

Soulful Steps for Leaders

Understanding, defining, and nurturing a vibrant and soulful culture takes conscious effort from the organization’s leaders. It involves cultivating an environment where employees are treated as individuals, promoting a sense of community, and ensuring that team members truly love their work. 

Thomas Moore, in his book "Care of the Soul," encourages leaders to articulate the soul values of their organization. This process involves answering crucial questions: What is the essence of our culture at its best? What stories or narratives embody this essence?

Effective leaders understand that the soul of their organization is not a superficial concept but a guiding force. They listen to their own inner guidance, connecting with their own souls, to make decisions that resonate with purpose and meaning. When leaders are deeply connected to their own souls, they can inspire and guide their teams with authenticity and vision, transcending mere transactional leadership.

Recently, my senior leadership team and I began considering the soul of our leadership development business. As part of this process, we started interacting with our firm like it was a being to be tended and nurtured. We recognized that, at its best, our company is generous, inclusive, innovative and loving. Having this clarity has made all the difference. As leaders we’ve begun taking care of the business less transactionally and more thoughtfully. We’ve developed a reverence for it.

Here are four steps you can take as a leader to start creating and nurturing the soul of your organization:

1.    Define your organization’s essence: Begin by engaging your leadership team in defining the core values and principles that make your organization unique. What is it that initially drew team members, clients and shareholders to your cause? This clarity will serve as your organization's compass.

2.    Align actions with values: Ensure that the daily operations and decisions of your organization align with its defined essence. Encourage ethical behavior, promote inclusivity and create an environment where individuals can thrive.

3.    Foster a culture of purpose: Empower your employees by emphasizing the significance of their roles within the broader mission of the organization. Encourage a sense of ownership and purpose in their work.

4.    Reflect and adapt: The soul of an organization isn’t static; it evolves over time. Revisit your organization's essence as you go, adjusting and refining it as necessary to stay relevant and inspiring.

The concept of the soul at work is a profound one, giving definition to the essence of an organization. It’s the guiding force that shapes culture, informs decision-making and inspires team members. Soulful leaders understand the importance of recognizing and nurturing the soul of their organization. They inspire their teams to make a positive and lasting impact on their organizations and the world.

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