Leading Like a Rock Star

Lepisto teaches organizational behavior. He earned his Ph.D.from Boston College; his dissertation won the Grigor McClelland Best Dissertation award and was a finalist for the INFORMS/Organization Science Dissertation Proposal Competition. His research centers on explaining how individuals and organizations effectively adapt and change, particularly in the face of uncertainty or ambiguity. Prior to working in academia, he was a management consultant with the Monitor Group (now Monitor Deloitte) and the advertising firm Young and Rubicam.

leading like a rock star

Remember how you felt at the last rock concert, sporting event (Go Broncos!) or political rally you attended? Excitement, community and shared experiences connected you with the crowd. And that memory probably summons up emotions that stay with you to this day.

Imagine if you could bring that same visceral feeling to your workplace, with employees assembling around valued activities and practices. Think about what the connection of employee to company might mean to your brand, the well-being of employees and the success of the company.

Dr. Doug Lepisto, assistant professor of management, is exploring just how leaders can make this happen in organizations. Research on higher corporate purpose has traditionally centered on companies whose founders focused on a cause. Think Tom’s Shoes, Patagonia, Apple or Harley Davidson: each of these organizations was launched by entrepreneurs who were also focusing on a higher purpose. But, for an established company, this presents a pressing practical question. If your company wasn’t founded with this purpose in mind, how can you credibly and authentically develop it? This question is urgent as various stakeholders increasingly expect organizations to espouse these purposes.

In his 21-month ethnographic study of an athletic footwear and apparel company, Lepisto examined the company which had been previously understood to strictly focus on the utilitarian pursuit of financial success. Lepisto immersed himself into the company, spending hundreds of hours observing employees at work, attending meetings, interviewing leaders and even celebrating at company parties with his family. “

I surprisingly discovered an emergence of new beliefs that stemmed from new, company-supported workout activities employees participated in together,” says Lepisto. “These shared experiences were a kind of powerful, emotive ritual activity that gave employees feelings that their work at the company was worthy, righteous, and bigger than selling shoes and t-shirts. Through these powerful experiences together, they came to see the company as standing for a bigger purpose of enabling people to become the best versions of themselves.”

These settings can create an emotive shared experience by focusing people’s common attention and building a mood of the worthiness and humanistic value that the company’s products and services provide. In the study, these feelings were amplified when senior leaders at the company reflected back this higher purpose.

This offers important lessons to business leaders who seek to develop and entrench a higher purpose in their organizations. “Instead of focusing on how you communicate, provide employees shared experiences that focus on what your organization does,” says Lepisto. “These shared experiences help build uplifting and transcendent feelings. For instance, the medical device company Medtronic creates these conditions when they bring patients in to speak at all company events about how these devices changed their lives.”

Lepisto acknowledges that establishing such an idea can be challenging, met with cynicism and won’t happen overnight. But the effort is worth it.

“Most employees feel there is not enough done to build a higher purpose in their organizations. Creating these shared experiences that establish a sense of purpose can help companies attract talent, increase engagement, and promote a sense of meaning at work.”