Prepare for the Leadership Journey : Discover Your Core Purpose

Your core values reflect what is important in your life. So, discover key components of your past that will help you to gain clarity.

When you are born, your genetic makeup is unique. Nobody has been or will be exactly like you.

You are one of a kind. The only exception to this are twins born from a single fertilised egg. They will have an identical gene sequence. Studies of twins have therefore been extremely valuable to determine the genetic basis for personality. For example, twins who have been adopted by different parents, and have been brought up in completely different environments, still show similar characteristics. Because their environments were completely different, these characteristics are likely to have a genetic basis.

Scientists have discovered that life experiences can turn genes on and off. In other words, the expression of genes can be muted or strengthened as a result of external factors.

Your genetic makeup

Gene sequences don’t change during your life. If you are born with brown eyes, then you will have brown eyes for the rest of your life.

However, your genetic makeup is not set in concrete. Scientists have discovered that life experiences can turn genes on and off. In other words, the expression of genes can be muted or strengthened as a result of external factors. So this demystifies he age-old question whether leaders are born or made. The reality is that it is a mix of both.


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Genetics is not the only science that starts to unroot common beliefs amongst scientists. Neuroscientists have also made tremendous progress as a result of advanced technologies over the last twenty years. A few decades ago, most neuroscientists believed that adult brains were fixed in form and function and wouldn’t change after childhood. Today, we know that our brain has the ability to change its neural pathways throughout our adulthood. This property of the brain is called “neuroplasticity.” The way you repeatedly think or behave will be reflected in the physiology of the brain. This is where physiology meets psychology.

From the average age of 18 months, you start to develop self-awareness. In other words, you start to recognise yourself in the mirror. By 24 months, you will become aware of how you relate to other people and your environment. At the same time, you will start to become aware of your emotions.

Studies have shown that emotions provide strong anchors for your memory. This means that you will remember emotional events better than non-emotional events.

Emotions are strong feelings, such as anger, hate, love, fear, confusion, shame and joy. Emotion is universal, everybody feels in the same language; it transcends culture, social classes, age and political boundaries. In fact, the only thing you really know about yourself are your emotions. Studies have shown that emotions provide strong anchors for your memory. This means that you will remember emotional events better than non-emotional events.

Emotional responses

Evolution has given us automatic emotional responses, which are parts of our genetic makeup. When a lion unexpectedly jumps in front of you, fear will immediately kick in. Your heart rate will increase, blood pressure will go up, muscles tighten, breathing becomes shallow, and your pupils will become larger. Your physical body is getting ready for a “fight or flight” response.

Other emotional responses will be “learned” responses as part of your social and cultural development. They are a representation of the meaning you attribute to sensations from within your body and from your environment. This is where physiology, psychology and philosophy work hand in hand. These learned responses can also become automatic or habitual.

In order to find your core purpose, it is essential to find out what drives and motivates you.

The good news is that you can learn to control and change emotional responses. You can even learn to react differently to a similar event in a different context. This is an important part of your leadership development, especially in todays global multi-cultural environment.

Finding your core purpose

In order to find your core purpose, it is essential to find out what drives and motivates you. That’s why it is so important to discover your core values.

Your core values reflect what is important in your life. They are more difficult to find than emotions but emotions often give away associated values. Events that cause strong emotions are likely to be linked to your core values. Although core values are relatively stable, they tend to change over a life-time.

For example, early in your life, you may value “wealth accumulation” and “high earnings”, whilst later in life, you may put increased value on “moral fulfilment” and “helping others.”

There is a lot to take in when you grow up.

Memories, emotions and internal thinking processes help you to build a story of your life. You will create a perception of what has happened with you in the past. This perception is your personal reality, the way you see yourself, your relationship with others, and your environment. Your personal story will change all the time. Every new experience will add to your past.

The following activity helps you explore and discover key components of your past that will help you to gain clarity. As part of the activities, you are likely to accumulate a lot of information. In order to keep easy access to this information, I would recommend capturing it electronically. If you work on white boards, flip charts, or creative boards then it might be wise to take a photo and add this to your electronic information as well.

Activity 1. Explore past events, emotions, values and meaning

Purpose: Explore and discover the events in your past that define who you are today.

Create a timeline representing your life from your birth till now. On this timeline, mark the most significant life changing events and capture the following information:

  • Event: What happened?
  • When: When did it happen?
  • Emotion: What was your emotional response? What did you feel? (Physical)
  • Personal Value: What was important for you in life at that point in time? (Philosophical)
  • Meaning: What did this mean to you? What were your thoughts? (Psychological)
  • Notes: How did this relate to your environment. What was the context? (Environment)

Here are some illustrative examples to help you on your way:

Example 1:

Event: My nephew passed away. He was hit by a car when he crossed the road. He was just seven.
When: June 1980.
Emotion: sad, confused, devastated, shocked, helpless, abandoned, lost.
Value: Friendship, safety in traffic.
Meaning: Friendship can hurt. Traffic is dangerous. Dead is scary. It could have been me.
Notes: I always played with my nephew. We were about the same age. We were very close.

Example 2:

Event: I graduated from University.
When: August 1997.
Emotion: proud, happy, spirited, inspired, optimistic, relieved, fulfilled.
Value: Educational achievement, advancement.
Meaning: My parent are proud of me. I will have a bright future. I will have many opportunities.
Notes: Parents attended graduation despite running a business and being very busy.

Example 3:

Event: I prepared for a major competition in gymnastics. I lost and I noticed my dad at the sideline. He shook his head and looked very disappointed.
When: January 2005.
Emotion: embarrassed, sad, disappointed, worthless, defeated, inferior.
Value: Being loved by my parents.
Meaning: I disappointed my dad. He thinks I am a failure. I am not good in this sport.
Notes: My dad was everything. He was my hero. He was my role model. He didn’t tell me he was disappointed but his body language was clear.

Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • What were the defining moments or periods in your life?
  • When were you most alive?
  • When were you were completely absorbed in activities and forgot about time and yourself?
  • When was the first time you …? First-time experiences are often very vivid, such as your first day at school or university, first love, birth of your first child, first victory, first date, the first time dumped by a lover, first major accident, first kiss, first speech, first public humiliation, first swimming lesson, first funeral and first time in hospital.
  • What triggered major changes in your environment, such as leaving home, change of job, or even more extreme changes, such as adoption or migration?

Some people are more self-aware than others.

Not everybody is comfortable expressing emotions and some of you may struggle to identify emotions accurately. Some people are more self-aware than others. Friends and family are often valuable sources for input, especially for events that happened in your early childhood.

The English language has hundreds of different words for emotions. If you have difficulty to put your emotions into words than the following list may help. These are some commonly used emotional categories. Please note that this is not a clear-cut categorisation. Some words may fit in more than one category.

For example if you feel “exhausted” it may be a positive feeling after a major workout, but it may not be as positive if your children have kept you awake during the night. Intensity of emotions may also move you across categories. For example “disgust” can easily escalate into fear or anger.



Accepting, Admiring, Adoring, Affectionate, Altruistic, Appreciative, Attached, Attracted, Captivated, Caring, Compassionate, Considerate, Enchanted, Empathetic, Forgiving, Friendly, Generous, Grateful, Helpful, Kind, Passionate, Proud, Romantic, Sensual, Sharing, Sociable, Sympathetic, Thankful, Thoughtful, Tolerant, Understanding, Warm.


Angry, Annoyed, Bitter, Cheated, Cranky, Disgruntled, Displeased, Enraged, Flustered, Frustrated, Fuming, Furious, Grouchy, Grumpy, Infuriated, Insulted, Irritated, Outraged, Rebellious, Resentful, Revolted, Sour, Upset, Violent, Wronged.


Agitated, Anxious, Apprehensive, Cautious, Cold feet, Concerned, Defensive, Discouraged, Distressed, Distrustful, Doubting, Dreading, Evasive, Fearful, Frightened, Guarded, Horrified, Inhibited, Insecure, Intimidated, Jittery, Mortified, Nervous, Panicky, Paranoid, Petrified, Restless, Restrained, Scared, Shocked, Shy, Skittish, Spooked, Stressed, Suspicious, Tense, Terrified, Threatened, Torn, Trapped, Trembling, Troubled, Uneasy, Worried.


Abandoned, Abused, Afflicted, Agonising, Alienated, Blue, Bullied, Crushed, Defeated, Dejected, Demoralised, Depressed, Despairing, Devastated, Disappointed, Disconnected, Discouraged, Disillusioned, Dissatisfied, Distressed, Empty, Exhausted, Grieving, Gloomy, Heart-broken, Helpless, Hurt, Homesick, Hopeless, Low, Melancholy, Miserable, Mourning, Overwhelmed, Pessimistic, Powerless, Somber, Suffering, Regretful, Sad, Suicidal, Tormented, Troubled, Unhappy, Unloved, Vulnerable.


Alive, Animated, Blissful, Buoyant, Cheerful, Content, Delirious, Delighted, Ecstatic, Enchanted, Energetic, Enthusiastic, Euphoric, Excited, Exuberant, Exhilarated, Glad, Gratified, Happy, Hilarious, Hysterical, Inspired, Jovial, Joyous, Jubilant, Lighthearted, Lively, Optimistic, Passionate, Peaceful, Pleased, Radiant, Satisfied, Spirited, Stimulated, Talkative, Thrilled, Triumphant, Uplifted.


Abhorrence, Abomination, Antipathy, Detestation, Dislike, Distaste, Hate, Objection, Revulsion.


Accused, Ashamed, Awkward, Degraded, Disgraced, Dishonoured, Embarrassed, Foolish, Guilty, Humiliated, Inferior, Remorseful, Shame, Submissive, Uncomfortable, Worthless.


Absorbed, Creative, Curious, Fascinated, Impressed, Inspired, Involved, Inquiring, Inquisitive, Interested, Intrigued, Obsessed, Questioning, Skeptical, Wondering.


Amazed, Astonished, Astounded, Breathless, Flabbergasted, Overwhelmed, Speechless, Startled, Stunned, Surprised.

After this activity, you will have gathered essential information to define your core purpose. You may not end up with a complete picture of your past. This is not unusual, don’t despair.

One of the main regions in the brain that supports higher self-awareness is called the Insula. This area receives signals from and sends signals to your organs. It gives you the ability to identify and describe your feelings. People usually have different levels of Insula activity, which explains why some people have a higher self-awareness than others. Hence, why this exercise is easer for some than others. Self-awareness can be increased through exercises, which I will cover in another article.

Don’t get discouraged and skip the activities. True growth comes from knowledge and action. In my next article, I will continue with core values and move to capturing information from your present.

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Kid image courtesy Vedran Šetka@freeimages.com

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