Upon the foundation of IDENTITY and SERVICE, we introduce the third attribute from which purpose can thrive – MASTERY.  From our extensive research with nurses, we learned about the various versions of becoming or being an expert, excelling at different stages of one’s career, drive to continuously improve and moving from a skills orientation to a systems orientation. Purpose from having Mastery comes from the ability to learn from interactions at work, with those with whom they interact to lead, teach, heal and learn. Growth gained through interactions with other humans is at the heart of how Mastery is defined.

In 2008, I was speaking to the Director of Nursing for a large non-profit health system in the Midwest. We were reviewing overall nurse engagement. One of the lowest scoring items was ‘receives recognition or praise’. She contested that they had an extensive ‘recognition program’ including processes, and even peer provided recognition coupons for free lunch. They had it covered she confirmed. I began asking her questions about her longest serving, best healers in nursing. I asked her to think about those that showed the most compassion but were also the hardest drivers of excellence, patient education, team orientation and physician relationships. I then asked her to think about what would make them feel appreciated. Would a free lunch affirm this messy, complicated, chaotic and exhausting work? She agreed it would not. That nothing they were ‘doing’ would connect to that role. She acknowledged that knowledge, intuition, expertise and analytical abilities were all critically important to the ways these nurses did their best work. That they needed to figure out how to recognize for or connect to those elements.


This third unique key theme, underscoring the connection between individual purpose and knowledge, is comprised of four defining elements:

  1. Learninga two-way street to finding purpose in teaching students, patients and other colleagues, but also learning from them as well; defined as an endless curiosity by expressing desire for new opportunities as well as exposure to new information, skills and/or challenges.
  2. Knowledgestems from experience and intuition for nurses; amidst chaos, nurses rely on information and their skills at hand to help fulfill their sense of purpose through a system of quality of care; Knowledge is also something that is sought to help master “work flow’ which Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines this in his well-supported theory that “people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the situation.”
  3. Critical Thinkingdefined as “investigator, problem solver or analyst;” It includes a creative element in which thinking is stretched beyond the normal; applying creativity to investigative, problem-solving and analytical situations is noted as especially engaging.
  4. Developerhighly important to creating a sense of purpose through Mastery. research confirmed that guiding and teaching others, helping others find their full potential and individual purpose, along with leading by example, all encompassed a Developer mentality. 

Though uniquely represented for each individual, Mastery can serve to build or detract from sense of purpose when considered along with Identity and Service. Together this triad supports development of the purpose that nurses felt they innately possessed. Honoring the need for Mastery honors the emergence of purpose-driven engagement. This creates the opportunity for improved quality, performance and other outcomes

Though some tasks and jobs within a hospital setting are becoming more routine due to technology and the practice of silos, there is a strong need for inquisitive, curious minds to innovate around complex problem solving on a daily basis. To achieve this nurses as well as physicians and other staff need to feel engaged to pursue Mastery and support their sense of purpose. However, this path to creating engagement is currently lacking not only in healthcare, but across other industries as well.

“Unfortunately, despite sweet-smelling words like ‘empowerment’ that waft through corporate corridors, the modern workplace’s most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and its disregard for mastery.

-Daniel Pink, Drive.

We would love to hear from you about how MASTERY drives your purpose. How does your leadership empower mastery in your industry? If you want to learn more about how the MASTERY theme contributes to engagement, check out our research in our latest book Purpose Drives Performance.

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