“A Common Purpose” Nets Greater Investment and Greater Return

By Robert E. Quinn

“This morning I keep thinking about the concept of chords: more than one note played together at a time.  It is a simple thing, but it makes me think of the power of coordination, the power of individuals uniting in a common purpose.”

These words, part of a piece my son-in-law wrote about his gratitude for music, reminded me of my recent lunch with a powerful policy maker. Over the course of our conversation, she had referred several times to her early career as a military officer. She recalled how, time and again, total strangers learned to transcend big differences to become unified in the pursuit of an important purpose.

From her comments, it was obvious that that experience had transformed her. Even today, she maintains a tight bond with her former associates.  As she talked, she seemed to imply that she had had difficulty replicating that closeness and commitment elsewhere. What was the distinction that led to such a tight bond? Was it the fact of war? Or something else?

Wartime bonding is intense, according to Larry Dewey, a psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration. Dewey, who writes about this finding in his book War and Redemption, has listened to the deepest concerns of thousands of former officers.

During war, he writes, strangers eventually develop relationships of such quality that they willing to die for one another.  In pursuing a collective purpose, he explains, armed services members individually invest more than could normally be expected.  As a result, they grow into new, more capable versions of themselves.

As I listened to my colleague, I pondered the fact that such bonding experiences are not limited to the military in wartime.  The unity that comes from pursing a higher purpose can occur in any collective setting.  Indeed, my own belief is that we are here to learn how to achieve generative unity in every relationship—a challenge I have not yet mastered.

The great moments in life occur when we are part of a collective and all participants are, in my son-in-law’s words, “uniting in a common purpose.”

“I looked up the word ‘chord’ in the dictionary,” he wrote, “and learned that it comes from the Middle English ‘accord,’ which has its roots in Latin, meaning having your hearts or minds turned in the same direction.

Concordance or harmony can be achieved when the individual and the group are integrated.  When we are truly committed to a group in which everyone is sincerely striving for an important common purpose, we are drawn into a personal state in which our hearts and minds are concordant.

Because we are there, we can contribute more to the group.  Because everyone cares about the common purpose, our contributions have more meaning, and we then desire to contribute more.  It is a moment when concordance exists within the individual and across individuals as a group.  The self and the collective become joined in a common rhythm of growth.

When have you been most united in a common purpose?  What did you experience and learn?