When I was in eight grade, I read 25 biographies of great leaders. They ranged from Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin. One thing I noticed even at that age is that they all had one thing in common. They accomplished something significant, in some cases, world changing, because they had the will to do it.

The other surprising truth was that they almost all operated on vision, rather than a specific plan. What this means is that they all seemed to have an inspiring idea of what they wanted to accomplish, but developed their strategies by paying close attention to developing circumstances as they happened.

As I got older and began to work with business leaders, I was disappointed to discover that few of them had a big inspiring idea… at least not one that emerged from their soul. In fact, most of them have been controlled by their boards or financial analysts whose expectations are almost solely focused on growth and profits rather than creating value. This reduces most leaders into managers struggling to compete in a “me too” world.

What I’ve come to believe is that if you really want to do something significant you have to stand for something, believe in something, be driven by something that is bigger than just making money or even success as others define it. 

Over time, I’ve come to describe this drive as your “promise.” Your promise is bigger than a vision. It is a specific commitment to make a difference… a difference that drives you. It turns out that to be driven by a personal promise is not impractical or foolish. In fact, virtually all business leaders who we truly admire are up to something bigger than simply making money.

They are driven to create unique value… value that matters to human beings. This is true regardless of whether these leaders are creating robust and elegant computers or inventing new life-changing devices or inventing micro finance to help lift the desperately poor to self-sufficiency. What these few business leaders have in common is that they understand that business is a powerful vehicle for both self-expression and moral ambition.

The other distinctive quality of these leaders is that they oppose conventional thinking. They ignore benchmarks. They over-invest in a few things that really matter and strip away everything that doesn’t. They rarely pay attention to the stock price of their company and often tell investors who may not like what they’re doing to invest elsewhere. I find these leaders to be frequently envied but rarely copied. Perhaps the reason for this is that you can’t copy someone else’s promise. It doesn’t work that way.

Leaders who have a promise to keep always face moments of truth when their bankers, investors and boards question them. During these moments of siege leaders will fold if they don’t display the confidence that only comes from an intrinsic commitment to an ideal that is bigger than themselves. They would simply remain dreamers – people with bright imaginations but low resolve. One thing I’ve learned from leaders driven by an inner promise is that they’re more effective, more successful and more inspiring then ordinary leaders. It’s not because they’re smarter, but because they are relentless in finding solutions to the problems that stand in their way.

After coaching leaders for over 30 years, I’m convinced that the source of our promise comes from the deepest intrinsic part of our essential being. Discovering our promise takes more than self-awareness. It requires soul-awareness. So how about you?

If you could change anything and it would work… what would it be? There are six great needs in the world today; six great causes that are at the core of vital human need. These are:

1. Ending ignorance through education

2. Ending poverty though self-sufficiency

3. Conquering disease and improving total health

4. Ending violence and creating peace

5. Ending oppression and promoting human rights

6. Preserving our natural environment and creating sustainable abundance

Do any of these causes inspire you? I’m not suggesting you start a nonprofit. It seems we have enough of those. What I am asking is how might you, with your talent, skills and experience, turn your career or your business into a means of creating value that addresses the real needs of our time? In helping many leaders find their promise let me assure you – this does not require taking a vow of poverty only a vow of purpose.

So…

If you could state your promise… the “give” that you could give to the world, what would it be?