Chris Rock, Lululemon, and the never-ending purpose debate
For those of you living under a large rock, there’s a famous comedian named Chris Rock who got slapped in the face live at the Oscars last year by a famous actor named Will Smith. (For those of you living under an even larger rock, the Oscars are an annual event wherein the rich and famous of Hollywood have been gathering to stroke their egos for the last century.)
Anywhoo, Mr. Rock quite recently released a Netflix special where, in addition to finally speaking out about the slap heard round the world, he addressed corporate political activism and philanthropy. Some might see his remarks as a rejection of organizational purpose.
Quick note: None of what I’m saying here is intended to offer a point of view on the many sensitive political and social topics in the Netflix special. That’s not Rule No. 1’s jam. But purpose is our jam and when it hits the news or popular culture in a big way, I feel obligated to say something.
Rather than badly paraphrasing Mr. Rock, here’s what he actually said.
I walked by and in the window of every Lululemon there’s a sign that says, ‘We don’t support racism, sexism, discrimination, or hate’. I’m like, who gives a fuck? You’re just selling yoga pants. I don’t need your yoga pants politics. Tell me how you work on ball sweat.
Technically, he wasn’t talking about purpose. He was talking about companies marketing their social virtue instead of their products. Nevertheless, let’s take this as a moment to reflect on purpose.
I believe deeply in purpose. And because I do, I think Chris Rock is absolutely right.
Purpose is about the impact people want to have on the world — in their lives and in their work. An organization’s purpose — when identified and articulated properly — serves two functions. The first, as an expression of the impact that people working there want to have. The second, as a clarion call to external constituencies who share that purpose.
Most importantly, purpose comes from within. It comes from the soul. It is a calling. It does not come from social, political, or market forces. It is not an attempt to curry favor.
But amidst the sturm und drang of today’s social and political climate, business leaders have felt pressured to stand for something. And too often, they’re eager to stand for whatever they believe will keep them out of the news. Which is to say, they don’t really stand for anything except risk avoidance.
This is not purpose. It’s PR. And that is precisely Chris Rock’s point.
He is calling out the phoniness of PR masquerading as purpose. And I salute him.
I am not commenting specifically on Lululemon here. I haven’t explored their purpose or how they live it. And my opinion of their purpose doesn’t really matter (unless they want it to). Similarly, the only purpose about which Chris Rock’s opinion matters is his own. Lululemon and all other companies should identify, articulate, declare, commit to, and live a purpose that matters. They should do that not to sell pants to Chris Rock, but to ensure that they have a positive impact in the world and enable their employees to derive meaning from their work.
It matters on the micro level to people who want to leave the world a little better than they found it (which is to say, any human that isn’t a sociopath). And it matters on the macro level as we reconsider the role that business should play in society.
Because it matters, we have an obligation to maintain and reinforce the distinction between PR and purpose. We have an obligation to support those leaders working on behalf of true purpose. We have an obligation to gently nudge those who unwittingly miss the mark. And we have an obligation to more forcefully call out those who cynically try to reap the benefits of purpose without the true commitment to live one.
Kudos to Chris Rock for shining a light on this.