Discover Your Purpose and Change the World

A recent U.S. presidential candidate ended up withdrawing from the race after a string of losses in early state primary elections. Vulture-like pundits had been circling his dying campaign for days and immediately swooped down to pick over its carcass.

So what went wrong? He was presenting himself as a certain kind of person, but voters wondered whether he would be that same person two years after election day. They wondered whether he had any authentic core.

The criticisms may or may not have been fair. A political campaign is a nasty business in which operatives find an opponent’s molehill-sized weaknesses and pile on the dirt until a mountain of doubt fills voters’ minds. Still, the pundits’ fundamental point is indisputable: know who you are and know what you stand for. Be willing to stand for something over the long run if you hope to earn an authority so great as the presidency, a privilege so valuable as a friend’s trust, or a quality so crucial as your own self esteem.

We’ve become used to a world of change. Which raises some questions: Who are you and what are you about? Is there anything that lasts through all that change? You want to build a foundation that will endure through change, including a vision of the world you want to help create and your purpose in bringing that world to be. You’ll be living out that purpose through multiple roles and multiple jobs. The key question on any one day may seem to be, “What job will I do?” But the key question throughout a whole lifetime is, “What kind of person will I be?”

Your values answer that question. Your values ultimately tell you (and others) who you are and what you are about as a person. Who you are amid life’s twists and turns remains constant so long as your values do. Whether you are running for president or looking in your bathroom mirror, your values are your core.

We need leaders who don’t just mouth platitudes but who walk their talk. Authentic and practicing are the watchwords when it comes to values, and each of those words represents a different challenge.

Authenticity is the first test of my values and purpose. If I say I’m here on earth to repair the world or to be holy, do I really, really mean it? Do these ideas make me live and work differently, or do they ultimately hold no more significance than an empty slogan emblazoned across a glossy corporate annual report? If authenticity of purpose is the first test, then putting purpose into practice is the second and equally daunting challenge. I may be inspired enough to commit to building the civilization of love, but can I live that extraordinary-sounding purpose throughout life’s very ordinary routines?

Our values are the answer; they are the means by which we translate purpose into practice all day, every day. Three stories will show us values at work in three very different circumstances.

Integrity: A Value for Ourselves

Dave Collins spent virtually his whole professional career at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the giant health-care company with near-iconic associations to childhood—baby powder, No More Tears baby shampoo, and Band-Aids.

So it wouldn’t be very good for business if the company whose reputation rests squarely on safe products for our loved ones might be churning out products that killed people. Dave Collins and other J&J executives faced that horrific prospect on an October morning in 1982 when a Chicago reporter asked the company to comment on reports that someone had died after taking Tylenol, J&J’s bestselling pain reliever.

It would later become clear that seven people had died after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide by a deranged saboteur who restocked them on store shelves for purchase by unsuspecting customers. The stories proved both horrifying and poignant. But all those facts would become clear only days later, once company employees, coroners, and public-health officials had pieced together records from the sprawling, million-plus Chicagoland suburbs where the first death was reported. At the outset, Dave Collins, overseeing the division that manufactured Tylenol, had only a sketchy news report and questions of life-and-death import: Were consumers dying because of Tylenol? How had the problem happened? How widespread was it? What should be done about it?

A crisis team scrambled to assemble facts and immediately recalled Tylenol from Chicago-area store shelves. They quite quickly discovered that the product must have been tampered with after reaching Chicago store shelves. Within about twenty-four hours, exhausted company officials felt they were getting a grip on the crisis: the problem was apparently isolated to Chicago and had been contained thanks to the recall. Now that a previously unimaginable act of sabotage had occurred, the industry would have to pioneer completely new tamper-proof packaging.

But before that forward-looking meeting convened, J&J officials were alerted to a new report of tainted Tylenol in the San Francisco Bay Area. The report sounded dubious. Company executives huddled to consider another crisis recall, this time on the West Coast.

Their decision has since become a standard case study in business ethics textbooks. The J&J executives neither waited to investigate the dubious new tampering claim nor recalled Bay Area Tylenol. Rather, they recalled every one of 30 million bottles of Tylenol from every store shelf in the United States.

I lunched with Dave Collins to learn how J&J executives had agonized over one of the most momentous decisions in the company’s history. I wondered how they debated the trade-offs before deciding on what was then the costliest recall ever in corporate history. “Well, we had the credo,” he said, “so there really was no choice.” End of story. He was referring to J&J’s corporate value statement, the credo, which begins: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.” So, on an October morning when facts were elusive, a handful of exhausted executives agreed that a nationwide Tylenol recall was the “high-quality” way to honor their credo’s first responsibility to those who used their products. That was it.

As Dave sees it, the groundwork for their decision had been laid a few years earlier, when the newly anointed J&J chief executive James Burke launched a global series of “credo challenge” meetings with top managers. Dave explained that “the credo had been with us for decades, and Jim wanted to test whether it still stood up in modern times. If we could no longer honor it because of changing business conditions, then he was open to changing it. But if we were going to keep it, he wanted it to be because managers had thought about it and decided they wanted to live by it.” By convening those meetings, J&J’s chief executive had made things personal: from then on, no manager could regard the credo as some abstract values statement. Rather, each manager had to decide to own those values, or not.

Companies don’t believe in things; only human beings believe. If James Burke, Dave Collins, and their colleagues had wanted to put a price on their integrity, they would have found some way to appease the public and the FDA short of the drastic national recall. After all, only a few tainted capsules surfaced in only one region; it ultimately cost about $100 million to implement the massive recall. But they didn’t perform those calculations. They didn’t value their integrity for its worth in money. Rather, their integrity was worthy of esteem for its own sake. It wasn’t for sale.

People with integrity hang on to their values even when it’s difficult to do so. The root of the wordvalue means “to be strong.” People with integrity are strong themselves, and they consequently strengthen the rest of us. Integrity, above all, is a value for ourselves. Our integrity is what makes us the same people at work and at home, people who don’t say one thing and do another.

Reverence: A Value for Others

When you welcome newborns into this world and accompany the aged to death, you understand how humans ought to treat one another during the precious moments of life in between: with reverence. That belief guides the seventy thousand or so nurses, administrators, doctors, and others who form Catholic Health Initiatives, a gutsy twentieth-century chapter of a gutsy nineteenth-century story.

Gutsy is not the first word one would have chosen for Maryanna Coyle, a gracious, soft-spoken woman who would have topped five feet tall only if she wore high heels (and Sr. Maryanna Coyle didn’t wear those). An evolving health-care industry threatened to decimate the patchwork of small hospitals the earlier sisters had founded. Massive for-profit hospital chains were gobbling up independent hospitals. Most religious orders, in contrast, were running smaller hospital systems and lacked the purchasing power and other benefits of scale that the hospital conglomerates enjoyed. The sisters’ hospital systems consequently faced financial ruin, and economies of scale weren’t their only woe: the sisters’ ranks had plummeted: in the mid-1960s there were some 180,000 nuns in the United States; today there are about 70,000.

Sr. Maryanna and her lay colleagues faced a bleak future of ever-diminishing spiritual influence on hospital systems that were slowly drifting toward bankruptcy. To survive, they accomplished what few others would have dared to conceive of: uniting separate hospital systems sponsored by various religious orders into one health-care network that could thrive in the long run and protect its spiritual identity. Imagine the complexity of unraveling and reassembling legal structures, technology platforms, and human resource policies. It’s maddeningly difficult to put two companies together; try doing that with five companies.

Even a bevy of nuns risk losing their souls (pardon the expression) in the course of pulling off a big merger, and such concerns preoccupied Sr. Maryanna as she and her colleagues attended another of countless meetings to sort through merger details. A working group was presenting the new organization’s draft values statement, the sort of thing that weary management teams typically nod at before moving on to “more important” things—that is, financial concerns. The draft statement was uncontroversial; respect headed the proposed set of values. Of course respect headed the list. What else would you expect of a hospital system run by nuns?

Well, something more than respect, apparently. Sr. Maryanna halted the proceedings and asked her colleagues to recall why they were in the healthcare business. Something stronger drove them: reverence. And so, from that afternoon, one of the world’s largest hospital networks has stood for “reverence: profound respect and awe for all of creation … our relationships with others and our journey to God.”

Anyone who has ever held a newborn baby or a dying relative’s hand knows that feeling of reverence. It’s easy enough to imagine how reverence might vitalize doctors and nurses, but I wondered how the hospitals’ lawyers and kitchen staff, for example, connected this very spiritual value to their very worldly occupations. Well, we can learn about walking the talk by walking across the hospital lobby floor that Charles Bynum cleans and polishes every day at Memorial Health Care System in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One day, while tending another of his cleanup duties, he overheard a hospital visitor telling her husband that the lobby floors “have a shine where you can see yourself. I can see the bottom of my feet as I walk across them, and it reminds me of Christ walking on water.”

Lots of us occasionally doubt that our work makes any difference in others’ lives. Yet “just” by shining floors, Charles Bynum managed to free someone, at least temporarily, from anxiety and stress over her own illness or that of a loved one. Imagine if we all worked in ways that made our customers and colleagues feel as if they were walking on water. Surely the word reverence is the right word for that “feeling or attitude of deep respect, love, and awe, as for something sacred.” In the book of Genesis, God says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Charles Bynum is shining floors as if he believes we’re all made in God’s image.

Excellence: A Value for Our Work

Charles Bynum’s reverence of others becomes clear through his excellent work, and he previews our third value: we owe integrity to ourselves, reverence to others, and excellence to all that we do. As Ecclesiastes 9:10 tells us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Steve Duffy epitomized this attitude.

Fr. Duffy taught high school students for 56 years. He got around to me in 1972, my first year in high school and his 27th of teaching. He looked a few weeks shy of the embalmer’s table, and none of us would have bet Duffy still had thirty years of life left, much less thirty years of teaching.

We didn’t bet on his life span, but we did lots of betting nevertheless. Duffy was the consummate racketeer for good causes, regularly roaming the school cafeteria inducing gullible fourteen-year-olds to shell out a dime apiece on his weekly pro-football betting pool (the week’s winner took home half the proceeds; Duffy allocated the rest to projects that served impoverished developing world communities). Duffy had taught Latin for decades, but fifty-plus years of its unchanging conjugations weren’t enough to sate his appetite for them; he devoted after-school hours to patiently tutoring the kids who weren’t understanding those conjugations and declensions that he had already taught a few thousand times in his long career.

His religion classes seemed easy although he was teaching sophisticated ideas. He handed out custom-made mimeographed sheets summarizing each lesson’s key points. Even kids who couldn’t master Latin could salvage self-esteem with an “A” in religion. In fact, by senior year, Duffy himself seemed too easy. Although he was ever beloved, his antics seemed better suited to high school freshmen than to us eighteen-year-old sophisticates.

A few years later, while studying an upper-level college text on the Old Testament, I learned who had, or had not, been sophisticated back in high school. Déjà vu plagued me, chapter after chapter, until I tracked down Duffy’s mimeographed notes from a pack-rat friend who, for some reason, had saved his high school religion notebooks. The parallels were unmistakable. Duffy’s mimeographed notes were based on that text. He had taught college-level theology to fourteen-year-olds and made the material seem easy.

We can all excel as Duffy did. Excellence is developing and honing your talents for five decades. Here’s how St. Augustine captured the spirit of excellence that so obviously drove Duffy: “I will suggest a means whereby you can praise God all day long, if you wish. Whatever you do, do it well, and you have praised God.” In a short essay written not long before his death, Duffy spoke about the way he dealt with high school students: “I see myself radiating Christ to my students at all times … I do this by my concern and love and respect for them … I do it by being friendly in my dealings with them … [I think of Jesus] traveling with his companions, being with them twenty-four hours a day, and always having an effect on them by the way he dealt with them.”

That essay was Duffy’s last lesson to us, one about absorbing and imparting values. Duffy imaginatively followed Jesus around, saw how Jesus treated his colleagues, and led his own life accordingly.

Duffy figured out what other great leaders eventually understand: your most eloquent values statement is your example. Your personal, church, family, or organizational values are not what you say or print in a brochure, but how you treat people, how you run meetings, whom you hire, how you treat your child who wants to play when you come home exhausted, whether you inconvenience yourself to support your friends, and how you react in a host of other daily moments that, taken together, create your eloquent (or unimpressive) values statement. As Mahatma Gandhi once put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If someone followed you around for a typical week, what values would they say you embody? What traits do you want to pass on to your children? What values do you want to stand for?

This is an extract from Chapter 6 of the latest book by Chris Lowney, Heroic Living. Printed with the permission of Loyola Press. To order copies of this book, visit This book is available at Kinokuniya, Singapore.

The New International Version of the Bible has been referenced.