89: The Invisible leader – Cultivating the power of authentic purpose with Zach Mercurio

ep89 The Invisible Leader Cultivating the Power of Authentic Purpose with Zach Mercurio on TalentGrow Show

Organizations with a strong, shared sense of purpose outperform their peers by an average of 6:1. How can we as leaders tap into this important motivator to bring out the best in our team? In this thought-provoking episode of The TalentGrow Show, I chatted with author, keynote speaker and consultant Zach Mercurio about the power of authentic purpose and how leaders can cultivate it to transform their lives, work, and organizations. Zach shares ideas grounded in cutting-edge research about the staggering effect that a sense of purpose and meaning can have on your team’s performance and how you can help to create a culture of significance in your workplace. Learn common limiting beliefs that many leaders hold and how you can turn them around and build a purposeful narrative within your team or organization. Listen and share with other leaders in your network!


Zach Mercurio is one of the leading experts on the role of purpose in organizations. As a consultant, speaker, and researcher he has helped leaders in nearly every industry around the world understand the role of purpose and meaning in designing thriving organizations. Zach is the author of the bestselling book, “The Invisible Leader” and is a featured contributor for international media outlets such as The Huffington Post Business, Acuity Magazine, and Thrive Global. He is also a Ph.D. candidate, researcher, and Adjunct Faculty at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Zach serves as the co-founder and Vice President of the Foundation for Purposeful Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and teaching purposeful leadership in business. He lives in Colorado with his wife, two sons, and two adopted dogs.


  • Zach explains what he means by the “invisible leader” (5:07)
  • Research shows that one of the critical states of productivity is actually psychological meaningfulness, that we mostly get through serving other people with a common purpose (5:48)
  • We we should focus on our sense of purpose (6:26)
  • How purpose works within us in the workplace (8:11)
  • Organizations that have a strong, shared sense of purpose outperform their peers by an average of 6:1 (9:00)
  • Zach discusses the errors of the prevalent yet old-fashioned belief that people are motivated primarily by acquiring and achieving things (9:35)
  • A true sense of purpose encourages striving, not driving (10:54)
  • Halelly weighs in on the factors that contribute to a lost or diluted sense of purpose in an organization (11:10)
  • The transition from thinking obsessively about the human problem that your organization exists to solve, to an over-obsession towards thinking about the solutions (11:48)
  • How can leaders create a culture of significance in their workplace? (13:06)
  • One research-study that demonstrated the motivational power of purpose (13:47)
  • How you can use language to set a purposeful narrative (14:44)
  • Halelly asks about generational factors and whether they play into any of this (15:20)
  • Zach weighs in on why millennials seem particularly interested in purpose, and argues that both empathy and technology are big factors (17:00)
  • What’s new and exciting on Zach’s horizon (18:52)
  • How Zach researches meaning, purpose and motivation (20:38)
  • One of the most common limiting beliefs that many leaders hold (21:42)
  • Zach shares one specific action that you can take to upgrade your effectiveness as a leader (23:14)



Episode 89 Zach Mercurio

TEASER CLIP: Zach: The way purpose works, and psychological research has demonstrated this, is that it’s out in front of us. Put in widgets and medical devices that save people’s lives. To save people’s lives is an unfinishable purpose. If it becomes believed, it’s always out in front of you, and that’s why I always say this – purpose pulls us forward. It inspires a sense of striving instead of constantly having to drive people, and it’s that striving force of purpose, because it’s focused on other human beings, that’s especially powerful in organizations.

Halelly: And probably whoever the founder is of the organization, at least initially, had some kind of a sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s either lost in translation or it’s lost in transition.

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Hey, hey, welcome back TalentGrowers, to another episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and this week I have a guest named Zach Mercurio. He and I talk about purpose at work, and what he calls the invisible leader. Why you should think about this sense of purpose as something that’s really important to make sure you have that, not only in yourself, but also on your team and in your workplace. And he shares some really specific ways to help identify it, to ensure that people are connected to it, why it is important, and what you can do exactly, starting today, to help you move to a more purpose-driven sense of work, and also to become a more purpose-driven leader. I know you’ll enjoy this episode, and looking forward to hearing what you thought of it. Here we go.

Okay, here we are, back with my guest Zach Mercurio. He’s a purpose and meaningful work consultant and researcher, and author of The Invisible Leader: Transform your life, work and organization with the power of authentic purpose. Zach, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

Zach: Thanks for having me, Halelly. I appreciate it.

Halelly: It’s my pleasure, and I’m really excited to talk with you more and about your book and your work. Before we go there, we always like to give people a little bit of a feel for your journey, so describe your professional journey for us very briefly. Where did you get started and how did you get to where you are today?

Zach: I think for most of us, who are in this space of really wanting this term re-humanize business in the workplace, it usually starts out of our own pain. Mine was the same way. My first job out of college, I was an advertising/sales executive for a radio station. They told me at my orientation that I sold air. Exciting. This group, this team, this job, was really just miserable for me. It wasn’t because of the job, it was because of the results obsession. The obsession to acquire and achieve things, and the inability for me to have the skills to uncover meaningfulness and purposefulness in that work, and then for the team to do so as well. I found very quickly that when a team lives by results, they die by results, and I was very quickly sort of dying emotionally inside. So that was the impetus. I ended up leaving that job and I just became obsessed with this idea of how do we make work cultures that aren’t that, that aren’t obsessed with acquiring and achieving things, but to help human beings flourish and thrive. I actually went into higher education, where I wanted to make sure that we were educating future leaders in organizations to have those skills to develop pathways to meaningfulness and purpose. I did a lot of training and development work. Then I started working around purpose and meaningfulness in organizations and then I found a PhD program where I could research how people come to experience meaning and meaningfulness and purpose in their work and what are the effects of those. So that’s just briefly about me. I’ve had three careers already, but the purpose has really remained the same. It’s to help people thrive at work, to feel better about work and do better work.

Halelly: Are you still in academia now?

Zach: I am doing both. I’m an adjunct faculty and researcher at Colorado State University, and then I do consulting with organizations of all types and leaders of all types, helping to apply the research I’m doing on meaningfulness and purpose to develop leaders who can create and design cultures that are centered on purpose and elicit meaningfulness for employees to achieve all of the positive outcomes that we all want.

Halelly: Wow. Your book is called The Invisible Leader, which of course is an enticing kind of title, and I’m always interested in everything related to the word leader, but I have a feeling this is not what you mean. Well, I don’t have a feeling – I read your book – but it’s not what you mean anymore.

Zach: Right. So the invisible leader really is a common human centered purpose. The reason for which an organization of movement exists, apart from what it does, how it does it, or what it gets for what it does. So really, if the invisible leader is the common purpose. Not necessarily a person and much of the research out there on motivation finds that one of the critical states of motivation and productivity is actually psychological meaningfulness, that we mostly get from serving other people through a big purpose. That’s what the invisible leader is. Some people say, “Oh, I’ve heard that in reference to politicians who don’t’ show up to votes.” That’s not what it is. Invisible leader is just really that common purpose is one of the most powerful leaders of our lives and organizations.

Halelly: I would call them a deadbeat leader, if they don’t show up. Neat. Tell us more about why you think that it is the most powerful aspect of the business? Why do you think that the sense of purpose or the clarity of purpose is what we should focus on?

Zach: I’ll give you an example, and it just happened a few months ago. I was working with some distribution center managers and supply chain managers for a big Fortune 500 supply company that really supplies electronic widgets to medical devices. They had had a really bad financial quarter and they were miserable. I mean, clearly. I went into this hotel ballroom and I’m in there, they’re all sort of looking at their phones. I heard someone say, “Oh, man, I hope that this guy is not boring.” And they just had that feeling of being broken as a team. I stopped the session because it wasn’t going well, and I just asked, “Hey, so why do your jobs exist?” And the supervisor in the back sort of glared at me for a second, but then one woman raised her hand very slowly and she said, “I realized why our jobs existed last month. I was diagnosed with cancer. I was in an MRI machine that was diagnosing me. I looked up at the MRI machine brand and I realized that we distribute the widgets that go into that machine. I’ve been with this company for 12 years, been in this job for 12 years and I realized that my job has existed all this time to save my own life.” And you talk about an antidote to employee disengagement – all of a sudden, people in that room came alive. They started gravitating toward her, they were telling stories about their own work. They started brainstorming how they could get people on the front lines of their distribution centers connected to the work – all in the matter of a couple of minutes.

This is how the invisible leader, how purpose works. A lot of times, when I share that story, people have a visceral, emotional reaction. That emotional reaction that we have to hearing a story about purpose is exactly how purpose works, within us, in the workplace, everyday. So, they literally existed to distribute widgets that go into medical devices that save people’s lives. Some people say to me, “That’s one perspective.” That’s the perspective. I mean, that’s the only reasons why the job exists. That purpose had been buried underneath the pressure to acquire and achieve results, and so they were not able to have that sense of motivation and unlock that source of motivation as effectively. That’s what I mean by how that purpose can just fuse people together, and that example shows it. Research has found that organizations that have a clear sense of purpose, like that, they use shared language to communicate it, people believe in it, they outperform their peers by an average of six-to-one. Purpose driven brands have been shown to outperform the market by 50-to-one, but it’s really a result of the emotional response that purpose elicits and the motivation that follows.

Halelly: In your research, are you finding that there is a very broad or widely occurring lack of purpose in organizations?

Zach: You know, most people in organizations, I find, still subscribe to this really old belief that people are motivated primarily by acquiring and achieving things. And, I’ve found that we have an addiction, almost, to pushing people with things. Like, hey, if you achieve this goal, we’ll give you this salary increase. Or if you achieve this quarterly goal, you’ll get a promotion. The problem with that is results push us. The problem with results is precisely the fact that we can achieve them, and then what? We have to come up with another one. For example, when I’m working with sales managers, they tell me the most empty parts of their work lives are when they achieve a goal or when they don’t achieve a goal. Either way, they have to come up with something else. And this is often how we structure our organizations and it’s very expensive pushing for the organization, and it’s also ineffective because the person, the people, the employees, become dependent upon the push. The way purpose works, and psychological research has demonstrated this, is that it’s out in front of us. Put in widgets and medical devices that save people’s lives. To save people’s lives is an unfinishable purpose. If it becomes believed, it’s always out in front of you, and that’s why I always say this – purpose pulls us forward. It inspires a sense of striving instead of constantly having to drive people, and it’s that striving force of purpose, because it’s focused on other human beings, that’s especially powerful in organizations.

Halelly: And probably whoever the founder is of the organization, at least initially, had some kind of a sense of purpose. It’s either lost in translation or it’s lost in transition. Like you either have it stop somewhere between the layers, between the top and then the mass of the people that are executing on the vision and the plan, or that over time, and as the organization grows, it kind of loses the connection that maybe like a very small team, a small startup, usually is hyper-connected to what got them started.

Zach: Yeah, and one of the things I see in that, and I think you’re exactly right, is the transition from thinking obsessively when you’re founding a company of the human problem that your product or service exists to solve, and coming to know that problem, to starting to focus on the solutions. And an over-obsessions with the solutions you offer. What inevitably happens is people don’t really care about what you do, they want to believe what you believe. It’s that emotional commitment to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Often times, we get so lost in solutions, trying to keep up with the competition, trying to innovate solutions, new products, new services, that we could actually drift really far from the human problem that we exist to solve in the first place, which is the ultimate value of an organization and which inevitably is the ultimate legacy of an organization, or a leader, is solving that problem or fulfilling that need.

Halelly: Lots of the people who are listening are not really in the position to set the vision for the whole organization, or to state what the purpose is for the whole organization. A lot of times they are the translators, the conveyors, but they also can set a purpose for themselves and their team. How can leaders, especially leaders in the middle, create that kind of culture of significance that you advocate for?

Zach: One of the biggest barriers to working purposefully and achieving significance is that this un-belief that we matter, that our work matters. I think that one of the key ways for leaders to really create a culture of significance and a connection between people and purpose is to cultivate the belief that the work matters. One key way to do that is to make sure that the human being that’s inevitably at the end of every supply and service chain on the planet becomes front and center on the everyday work narrative. There’s a really interesting body of work by Adam Grant from the Wharton School, in which he researches university call center employees. These are high turnover, low morale employees. Basically they work at a university call center to call people to ask for more money, when they’ve already spent money. What he did, all he did was have a beneficiary of the work, a scholarship recipient come in and tell one shift for five minutes a story of how the work impacted them. The other shift he did nothing with. What he found was that the people that heard that story, just for five minutes, ended up being four times more productive, bringing in four times more money and spending almost three times the amount of time on the phone.

That study is one of many that demonstrates that we can do simple things, like bring an actual human being in to tell their story to our employees. Being storytellers and story collectors, often as managers or leaders, we get to see the data of the impact of the work. We often don’t spend a lot of time prioritizing, translating that data into stories that we can tell people, especially people on the front lines. So making sure those stories are part of your everyday language and then using the language of the big purpose, the big “why,” why the organization exists outside of what it does and how it does it. Using that language everyday with employees can be incredible powerful in setting that human-centered purposeful narrative.

Halelly: One of the things I know you are seeing in your work, because it’s everywhere and I’m in a similar line of work, it’s everywhere. People love to frame this from a generational perspective, and I’ve had a guest who says that we unfairly label people, Jessica Kriegel, unfairly label – you know her – about generations. But that being the case, that the Millennials or the younger generation in the workplace is maybe even hyper-focused on having a sense of purpose, to the extent that they are sometimes unwilling or unable to stick to something that seems maybe not as fun or maybe a little more removed from maybe something that seems like it has a higher purpose to it. And so sometimes people, I think maybe the more sinister or skeptical among us, would say it’s an obsession that is not healthy with this, “We must have a purpose for every single thing or else I’m not doing it.”

Zach: Ah, yes. Well, first, and research has really demonstrated, that the search for purpose is a human trait. It’s one of the uniting traits of our species. All you have to do is hang around for a toddler for a couple of hours to see that we’re wired from the first time we learn language to make sense of our world, to ask why almost before anything else. We’re wired to have an explanation, to have a sense of something that is bigger than ourselves, a justification for the existence of whatever it is we’re spending our time doing. We’re just wired that way. So I don’t think it’s a generational issue, I think it’s a human issue. Now, you bring up the Millennial and I sort of don’t subscribe to the labels either. Maybe it’s because I’m an in-betweener, I’m an ‘83er, so they don’t have a label for me. I don’t really subscribe to the labels, and one of the reasons why I think Millennials and the younger generation is particularly interested in purpose is because there’s a unique sense of collective empathy that I’ve been seeing in this generation that I’ve not seen in other generations in the workplace. I think it has a lot to do with technology.

A lot of people say that technology, for example, has been a bad thing for Millennials. But when you think about it, they’ve grown up with the stories of human suffering from around the world in the palm of their hand. They see what people are going through everyday, in the palm of their hand, and I think what happens is there’s this collective of, “We want to do something about that.” And I think that what organizations don’t tap into, that collective sense of empathy, of wanting to do something, they not only miss out on an opportunity to engage Millennials, but they miss out on an opportunity to engage and create a better environment for the whole workforce. Because while a Boomer may not say in this same language, “I’m searching for purpose and meaning,” in a 1955 study, 80 percent of workers said they would continue to work if they won the lottery. In 1955, Millennials didn’t exist. They said they wanted to work because it gave them a part of something bigger. So I think that Millennials are highlighting it in different ways, but I think that it’s really just a human desire and need.

Halelly: I like that. That’s a really good explanation and I agree. We’re going to start wrapping up pretty soon, and I’m going to encourage people to do something very actionable that you’re going to teach them to do, or suggest. But before that, what’s new and exciting on your horizon? What’s getting your attention these days Zach?

Zach: What’s got my attention right now is change, again, and especially organizational culture change. Because a lot of times, what happens when I go in and work with organizations to make the shift to a purposeful mindset or a purposeful organizational design, what I found is one of the most powerful limitations of doing that is these unsaid limiting beliefs of the work. So I’m doing a lot of research right now and work on what beliefs are, and how to change beliefs and unnamed assumptions. So the power of naming these beliefs that we have about work or about different generations or about other people can be so powerful in terms of changing them. That’s kind of the work that I’m doing now. I’m doing a lot of writing and researching on how do we change and name beliefs to change culture?

Halelly: Is your thesis that once a belief is named, then you can change it? Or is the naming the thing to strive for?

Zach: I think once it’s named, you can figure out really what are ways to change it? When I say belief, I’m saying something that you can’t name right now. It’s just an underlying truth in an organization that hasn’t even been uncovered yet, and so getting people, especially in leadership roles, to really think about what are the limiting beliefs of doing purpose work, for example? It could be that, oh, well, some work is just work, and it’s going to be work – that’s a pervasive belief. And how do we change those things? We have to name it and sort of get together and think about how we can address it and mitigate it.

Halelly: Interesting. So, can you give us just a little snippet of how do you research this thing?

Zach: One of the things that I’ve been doing, especially with leadership teams and managers, is running these workshops where we simply seek to identify limiting beliefs, and to name the core beliefs that are in place in the organization before applying any new behavior or any new strategy. So one way to understand what beliefs are, for example, is to actually have people write it out. I mean, I do a lot of narrative research, so having people write out what they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying about what they think about a change initiative, for example, has been incredibly powerful. Going back and reading that, and then getting to a process where you start sharing it with other people, because once a belief is read by another person – especially a colleague – it becomes real. That’s one way of doing it, is through what is called narrative analysis, getting people to write it down.

Halelly: Interesting. Can you give one example of a limiting belief that you’ve seen commonly held?

Zach: Yeah, and I think I just did it, but one of the most common limiting beliefs I think for organizations is this idea that people work for a paycheck. Or at the core, they may subscribe to this purpose stuff in a branding capacity, because it’s alluring and stimulating, but when you get down to it, what I’ve found is that leaders still have this belief that employees just want things. They want things, they want better pay, they want better benefits, they just keep wanting things. That’s one of the biggest limiting beliefs that I’ve seen that’s most prominent that’s a barrier to change. If you think of your employees of, A, if you think of them as “they,” first of all, that word “they” is incredibly powerful because leaders are employees too, so that they thing is an indicator of a limiting belief, and then also that idea that they want things, well, then you starting seeing them as something to be manipulated, versus inspired and empowered.

Halelly: Very cool, and I’ve certainly seen so much research that shows that given options, many times people don’t actually want more money. They do want things that give them a sense of purpose or a sense of meaning or give them an opportunity to build mastery in something and so forth, so especially 21st Century workplaces, versus the industrial age.

Zach: Absolutely.

Halelly: Neat. What’s one specific action that our listeners can take today, tomorrow, this week, that can help them upgrade their own effectiveness as a leader, maybe a purpose-driven kind of leader?

Zach: I would say that purpose and being a purpose-driven leader, it starts as a mindset shift. It’s changing how we think about even everyday work. I mean, one of the most powerful ways to start doing that is for you, yourself, to identify one of those tasks for example that you just don’t like doing that’s in your work. One of those things that you have to honestly say to yourself, “I don’t like this.” What I would recommend is asking yourself three questions about that task. One, if you didn’t do it, what would happen to another human being? Another person? Whether it’s a colleague, someone in an organization, a customer, a user. What would happen? Paint that vivid picture. Write it down. How does doing that task impact the person or a human being? Is the second question. The third is how does that task help accomplish this bigger purpose and actually using the language of a purpose? Now, this is really powerful in changing your perceptions of a task. I was doing this for a group of actually bus drivers, and one of the bus drivers – and they do very repetitive tasks all day long – said, “Even after hearing you speak, I still hate sweeping the bus at the end of the day.” I said, “What would happen if you didn’t do it?” What he uncovered is that someone else would be inconvenienced and feel overwhelmed, and I asked him, “Do you like making people feel overwhelmed? Is that a value you hold in your life?” And he was like, “Of course not.” He had this realization that who he was, he had separated his values as a person from his values as a person in work. He since told me that he can’t think of that task differently. While it may seem forced at first, being able to attach a human being at the end of even your most mundane tasks will then help you do it for other people, especially when you get that push back. But I’m just processing loans, or I’m just doing this task that doesn’t have contact with clients. Meaning and purpose is crafted. It’s not necessarily found.

Halelly: And sometimes you have to connect the dots a little bit further rather than just straight to the next point.

Zach: Sure. Absolutely. And, help connect the dots for people, but I often say that if you’re unable to connect the dots yourself and to think bigger and more purposefully yourself, it’s really difficult to create and design a purposeful culture.

Halelly: Oh, absolutely. That is for sure. It’s very difficult to lead others and motivate others if you yourself are not motivated! Oh my gosh. Great. That’s actionable. Let’s think again to ask yourself those three questions, and then what should they do next? Okay, they ask the questions and then what?

Zach: And then I would continue the habit of thinking like that and crafting those tasks like that, and then you know, what I might do, is think about maybe if your employees or people you work with on your team, if you find that there are people that struggle in a particular area of the work, or if a particular segment of your population struggles or is not as engaged in their work, see if you can help them and start teaching them these ways of crafting the perception of the work and bringing that human being at the forefront of it. It’s at that point when multiple people adopt new habits that are routed in purpose, that those habits become a culture and again, we know through a lot of research that when people are able to see that purpose of their work and create a ladder to that purpose from their individual tasks, they are actually more productive, more fulfilled and happier. Even if it’s a little bit forced at first but that’s how all habit building is.

Halelly: And who wouldn’t want happier people on their team?

Zach: Well yes, I hope. Who wouldn’t want happier people on their team?

Halelly: Excellent. Zach, thank you so much for spending time with us on the TalentGrow Show. We appreciate you and how can people stay in touch with you and learn more from you?

Zach: The best way is visiting my website at ZachMercurio.com, and then I’m on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and LinkedIn, @ZachMercurio. I post a lot of these tips. In fact, I do a monthly newsletter called The Spark, and at the end there’s always an exercise involved to take this and make it practical in your life and then in your team’s life, like we did here today. So check out my website and follow me on social media and let me know what you thought of this episode and I’d love to connect with you more on how to implement this stuff.

Halelly: Excellent. Definitely. All right. Well, that’s it for this show, for this episode, and thank you for your time Zach.

Zach: Thanks a lot.

Halelly: Okay, TalentGrowers, even something as esoteric as purpose can be very actionable when you ask the right questions, right? So ask yourself those questions and take action. Help others. You know, my purpose is clear to me. I am definitely here to help as many people as possible maximize their potential and optimize their gifts. I hope that as many people as possible actually become the best self that they can be, and I am doing my best to help them with that. There are lots of ways I do that, by speaking to them about ideas I have for doing better work, developing skills, becoming better leaders, and also by helping them in my many training and facilitated workshops. And, through this podcast, right? You know, you can help me achieve my purpose because you can help me reach more people. The more people that I can help, the more that I can achieve my purpose. So if there’s someone you think of that might benefit from this particular episode, and of course from the podcast in general, please share it with them in whatever way makes sense to you. Then all of us can help make this world better. And you can help me achieve my purpose, which I thank you for.

That’s it for this episode. I hope that you’ll take action and I hope that you’ll come back for another. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

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