Getting Out Of Your Box To Discover Your True Purpose With Nick Craig


Most of the time, your dreams don't end up being your purpose. You need to find your true purpose in life and connect with it. But how do you find it? You can find it opening yourself up to the world, to not be confined within your little box. Learn exactly how to do that with your host Tony Martignetti and his guest Nick Craig. Nick is the president of the Core Leadership Institute and the author of Leading from Purpose. Listen to Nick's story on how he got into this field and how he helps leaders discover their true purpose. Learn how to be the author of your own life story today. 


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Getting Out Of Your Box To Discover Your True Purpose With Nick Craig

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Nick Craig. He is the President and Founder of the Core Leadership Institute, a global development firm committed to waking up those who wake up the many. Over the years, CLI has helped nearly 20,000 leaders discover their purpose, the unique gift that they alone can bring to the world.

Nick's expertise in purposeful leadership has been sought out by both corporate and academic organizations ranging from The LEGO Group, Ben and Jerry's, to the United States Military Academy at West Point. His insights from working with these organizations have been captured in his 2018 book, Leading From Purpose, which is just brilliant. I love that book. He lives in Harvard, Massachusetts, with his wife and his amazing dog. What is your dog's name?


It is just a pleasure to welcome you to the Virtual Campfire.

Good to be here. I feel the warmth.

That's what we try to create a warm space for conversations that we’ve been having. We've had conversations around campfires since the beginning of time. What we're going to do here is we're going to share stories, your story, through what we call flashpoints, points in your journey that has ignited your gifts into the world. There are a lot of gifts that you have to share. I'm looking forward to spending some time and uncovering those stories. With that, I'm going to turn it over to you and let you start wherever you'd like to start. We'll pause on the way and see what shows up.

Where would you like me to start on the journey? Any place?

Any place you like. I've had people start before they were born. Try that on for us. 

The part most people don't see is a key part of who they are.

We can start with the past lives if you'd like to. The interesting thing about purpose, if we think what purpose is about, in some sense, you could argue that one's true purpose is only known afterward, no longer here. What is the legacy that you leave? What is it that people remember? What is the impact that you have, and how does it play out? It's just an interesting question to think about. I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the ‘60s. My mom was German. My father had gone to Germany after the war in the Army. He couldn’t bring her back. As I grew up, I had this experience of growing up in the deep South but also having a very German mother.

I had those two realities happening at the same time. We had long blonde hair going into the first grade, which was not very helpful. What's interesting is you think about the moments that define us. I think one of the moments that probably most defined me was first grade, and that experience was one of being a very extroverted kid coming up against the teacher who was in first year teaching from a very religious institution that she had been educated in which God was a punishing God. She, on a regular by daily, weekly basis, would take me out in the hallway and take a wooden paddle and do her best to have me submit. I learned that the only way to get back was to be smart.

Smart in what way?

I have to get A's. I got A's then to disprove all of her narrative about how much I was not a good kid. I was just an extroverted kid, though. She got rid of that extroversion as a result of that year. I was a very quiet kid for the next twenty years. I have a Computer Science and Math degree from university. It took me until my mid-twenties before I started to speak out in any public contexts that one would associate with being slightly extroverted. Those things shape us.

You mentioned the book. The book is the introverted part of me that writes and likes to write and enjoy that part and the extroverted part is what you get now. I have well-developed access to both, and probably that’s not something that most people have. It is what it is. The journey of how I got here and what I do, and how it all plays together, I have used that story many times in the programs we teach.

The reason I use it is because one of the key questions that we ask at the beginning of one of our programs is to have a chance to experience what's the part most people see. Obviously, the extroverted part is a big part of that. That’s the part that most people don't see, this key part of who you are. It is that kid that had to get smart will be smart and had to survive in a world that was not exactly going to make it easy.

In the process of that, I developed a set of skills and capabilities that I still use. A lot of what I do is the introverted part that creates amazing things. The extroverted part gets to deliberate, and where they come from, it comes from their life. I think all of us have stories like this that are elemental to what makes us who we are and also, what is the part that we don't usually show people. I find that if I'm at a gathering or a party, there'll be a point in the evening where I'll be buying a standing by myself, and I’ll be completely happy staying by myself.

VCP 156 | Discover Your True Purpose

This element of conforming to fit in, but also standing out in this way that you saw the way to make people happy is by excelling in this place of being smart, so you don't stand out. Eventually, you realize that there's a part of you that's dying to get out. To be that loud person, not like loud, but more extroverted and out there. You've held yourself back for so many years in not doing that. 

All of these things come with a gift. Every challenge is a gift anyways. Through time, we get to see what they give to us. I would say my ability to be very good in front of a room and teach and be able to have amazing content that I use to do it, I haven't created much of that. It's because these two sides are very well developed. Most people have one or the other. For whatever reason, I was given the opportunity to have both. I would not choose the choice of how it was created.

If we think about what could be our magical moments in our life that are as compelling and challenging, in my particular experience, one of the more interesting adventures that I have growing up is that during the ‘70s when I was growing up, my family was heavily involved in recreating the American revolution. We did what's called reenactments where you go out, dress up in Revolution War outfits, and fight battles.

I remember the first time I did this. I remember being a drummer in this field, there were all these people, and all the screaming, and the guns going off. There was a moment where I wasn't sure whether I was in the 20th century or the 18th century. It all felt so darn real. At some point, I realized what if I was in the 18th century and the other thing was a dream. It was one of those amazing moments as a kid of just pinching yourself and realizing that this is what it would've looked like and felt like if you were there at that moment in time. We each have a gift of seeing and experiencing things that change us. I would say that was one of those moments where I got to see the magic of what life can be.

Free yourself from being in the confines of your normal life and allow yourself to imagine the possibilities of what could be out there by giving in to the moment.

What was interesting about that was as we grew up, we ended up having dreams. There's the tension between the dream that we have and the reality that we experience. That's one set of things that we deal with in life. Many of those dreams are ones that others give us. They're extrinsically defined. We see things on TV. Other people have something we say we want that as well. It's like you see the toy in the display window, and you say, “That's what I want.” What's more interesting for me, in some ways, is the things that happened to us that are magical for which we couldn't have ever been creative enough to wish for them. It’s not possible.

You've got me thinking about this whole concept of magical thinking. There's this element of when you allow yourself to think of what could be possible by imagining that future and then allowing yourself to go free and to develop what could be possible. How could I make that possible? What are the things that I need to do to put myself in trajectory to that? It starts with that imagination, that ability to see that magic is possible if you allow yourself to believe in it.

Another way to think about it is how do you honor the magic that's already happening? Here's the thing. Most of the work I do is around helping people discover or reconnect to the purpose that's always been there. You would have been on this journey together. What I know about that is that when people get clear on what their purpose is, they also keep the opportunity to get clear on how do they want to bring it alive? How are they going to manifest it fully? My actual experience is that I never dream as good as my purpose ends up making things to them. Think about it. When we started this, you listed a set of companies, Ben and Jerry's, Lego, West Point. You couldn't dream that up if you try as opportunities and experiences.

You never dream as good as your purpose ends up making things turn out.

There are things that can happen for the most part. I talked to so many people for which this is the case, so I'm not just saying this is me per se. Many people for which that when you step into that's that magical place and you step into that place that we would refer to as purposes, hard, challenging things that we have to do. They're not easy. There's a lot of crazy stuff that we end up dealing with, but at the same time, there are things that you get to do that you could never have had the balls to dream and say, "I want to do those things." Both the true.

I think one of the things that are coming from me is that you have to put yourself on a trajectory to have that happen. You have to connect with this idea that you know what your purpose is. You got clear on what it is. Therefore, you put yourself on the path to creating something magical, but it starts with knowing that you already are that person, the person who can create those things.

It's in some sense that the core purpose is our identity. What is our definition, and how do we define it? What is our identity? For most people, their identity is very much connected to their job, the uniform they wear, whatever it may be. It could be everything from not wearing one to having one. The things around them and all the things that go along with that. Yes, those are expressions of that. The challenge is they're all fragile because things happen to them. Many of them, we have to put into a closet because we don't fit in them anymore or they no longer look that or whatever it is to me.

I think the question has always been, what is it that doesn't change? I do think that the clarity of our purpose is one of the things that when we know what it is, we can change the words over time. I played with my words a number of times. I've refined it a number of times, but it's the same purpose. It's just my relationship with it has deepened. It’s the best way to describe it.

I want to take you back into your story to find out how did you get into this space of doing this work? This is not something you just arrive at. What led you to do work in this space of purpose?

Those are a couple of things. I was lucky enough. I guess one of my gifts is I was always more curious than I was afraid. I would be willing to knock on people's doors that other people wouldn’t knock on. I live in Boston. Between MIT and Harvard, there always have been some interesting people that have taught there. Whenever I'd read their great books, I would just call them up and meet them. I didn't know you weren't supposed to do those things because other people would then say, “You did what? Did they answer the phone? What happened?” I was like, “This is what's going on. I just go and do it.”

Fundamentally, I was good at making things happen. These people would end up inviting me to help them do things. What's interesting is as I was doing so, I worked with a guy named Ed Schein. He was the grandfather of culture in culture change. I worked with a guy, Michael Beer. He’s in Harvard Business School. Jack Tobar. There's a guy named Marvin Weisbord who created a whole bunch of stuff. They are all these people who, at the end of the twentieth century, were doing interesting and innovative stuff. Peter Stanley, Otto Scharmer, and all these people.

I hung out with them, and I got to do some adventures with them. What I discovered is that most of their technology was useless. It didn't work very well. Most of the time, it didn't. Most of the time, it was a bad outcome. The reason that I knew that was because I was the one who was on the ground, trying to make it happen.

What was always amazing for me was that there would all of a sudden be a particular leader who was gifted. They would take that technology that we were playing with, and they could turn it into this amazing outcome. Six to nine months later, there would be a Harvard Business Review article on the process, the methodology. It would refer to the individual that was the leader, but they were like a side note. It was all about this process. That was like, “This article is backward.” I realized that most Harvard Business Review articles are all backward.

VCP 156 | Discover Your True Purpose

They spend all their time talking about the process and what you do and how you do it and whatever. Having been on the ground, what I discovered is it almost made no difference what methodology we used. It would have worked. The people, the person that we were interacting with at a level of wisdom, clarity, and ability to sit with people and have empathy, transparency, and all those things. That's the difference that made the difference.

When I had those people I got to work with, then magically, everything worked. When I didn't, magically, nothing worked. This is probably about 2002, 2003, when I realized then is that the key to the kingdom was helping people access wisdom. If they have access to wisdom, everything works. If they don't, it doesn't make any difference what you do. It's not going to help. You realize what I started to do. I started, “How do people access them?” I saw models that would say, “It takes 2 to 5 years of development and work.” I was like, “We haven’t got that time.”

I started looking around, and I found a couple of people. One was a guy named Bob Quinn at the University of Michigan who created the Positive Organization Society Work. He was doing some beautiful work around leaders and what it means to be a leader. What are the core elements that make someone step into that wisdom? There was another person, Bill George, at Harvard Business School, where he teaches a course on leadership. No matter which of these you looked at, it was much getting into the same place. It just turned out that Bill's research assistant ended up meeting me, and we talked, and we took the course I'd been playing around with.

He said, “You figured out all the stuff. We haven't figured out what we are trying to do with the MBA. The second-year class was a part of Business School.” I met Bill, and he had in his program a whole list of topics, and one of them was purpose. It was going bad. It got the worst evals of all the topics. It was just like totally in the basement. I was a fixer. I was like, “Let me take this. Let me go see what I can do.” I was able to fix it. Once I'd fixed it, I was off to the races of adventures of having to chase the cat. Things got worse. I was connected to it. I couldn't let go. That's basically it. I think that's one way to describe it.

I want to pause for a moment here because this goes to show you how your smart introvert shows up at this moment where you're like, “I'm not Bill George at this moment where I'm the person who is out there, the front-facing person, but if I see a problem, I can fix it. I'll go in, I'll spend the time, and I'll fix it.” Ultimately this is where things start to move you into leadership or more of a front-facing role. I think it's so amazing how if you just give yourself an opportunity to get in front of people, connect with other people, and be open to collaborate with other folks, it opens doors.

One of the things that oftentimes gets in the way is that people get into business or their careers, and they feel like, "I can't share what I'm thinking about. If I do, someone's going to steal it. Someone's going to rip off of it." There's this element to hold everything close to your chest. In fact, if you instead be more open to it, then what happens is you can build something bigger together and, in fact, advance your career. Would you agree?

Absolutely. No big steps would occur on a given day. It’s all these little steps. They add up over time. The truth was that Bill was the 800-pound gorilla. At that time, he had been the CEO of a big company. He was extremely wealthy. He was a Harvard Business School professor, and the list went a lot of accolades. I was just this guy who picks things. Over time, at this point, I become a 200-pound gorilla.

Tell me about some of the other challenges along the way. It's not an overnight situation where you show up, and everything starts to fall into place. Tell me about more of the challenges along the way of getting to where you started the Core Leadership Institute because that didn't happen overnight. 

It's interesting. I’ve created things are like that. Overnight is easy. You decided that on a couple of pieces of paper. That's getting it off the ground. It was clear that my opportunity or window to become a professor in a place of higher education was probably not going to be the path I was going to end up falling. Plus, I wasn't sure I was interested in just giving kids grades. I liked working with real people, solving real, crazy things. I was a good consultant. I knew that. In some ways, creating the business was a way of having a basic place to do the work and start that work. At the time I started, Bill was still fully ensconced in teaching MBA classes.

When you access your wisdom, everything works. If you don't, it doesn't make any difference what you do.

His schedule was extremely limited as to what he could do. All of a sudden, there were a number of companies that wanted us to try to play with some of this material. That was my job. I started going on the journey of doing that. The first one was a GE, and it was a privilege to do for 30 of the top 300 three times a year. I did that for about 3 or 4 years. That was scary. Every time afterward, I thought they would take me out back and shoot me.

I never felt good afterward. It was never a good feeling. It was always an awful feeling. They invited me back again. I was like, “Who knew?” It was a wonderful way to get tested. It's like against the coal face. If you could survive there, you could survive any place, is the best way to put it. In some ways, I've been lucky enough to have some wonderful people that I've gotten to work with over the years.

One of the reasons you and I know each other is because of a woman named Lisa DeAngelis, and she was a friend of mine early on. I had some great people. For all of us, the quality of the people that we have around us to do the work is the thing that defines our own colony of our own work. I think that one of the things I've always somehow been good at is finding amazing people to work with. I think that much of that is the real reason why much of the work that we do globally now exists is because I have a bunch of wonderful, crazy people all over the world who love to do wonderful, crazy things with me.

One of the things about that working with the right people and connecting with those people is that you get better over time at figuring out, “These are the people who need to be in my universe.” I'm sure there are people along the journey that you've been like, “I think I've gotten the wrong person on the bus.”

There are good fish that we've thrown back. I don't think anybody escapes the journey of being disappointed. I also feel like, at this point, there was a wonderful group of people that were extremely engaging, present-wise. I learned a lot from every time I worked with them. I think that makes as big a difference as in the other things that we talked about.

This whole talk has been about my journey, what I did and how I did it. There was never just an I in any of us. I was thinking about the number of people, for which I don't know if I returned the favor over the years. It makes it weird when you give to somebody that doesn't give something back, you say, “It’s okay.” It all evens out.

In some ways, people give because they believe in you and your cause. They want to help you because they see something in you that sometimes you don't see in yourself. That's important when you see people in your journey who do that. I think what everyone wants is they want someone who's going to support them, but it's just finding those people who are going to be the champions of your cause.

It's also important that I can only work these days for people I'd want to go on vacation with. I'm talking about clients. I'm talking to people who pay me money. If I wouldn't go on vacation with them, then I wouldn’t work with them. What's interesting is the only people that then show up for me to work with tend to be people I would love to go on vacation.

VCP 156 | Discover Your True Purpose

I ended up doing vacations with some of those people, which is the funny part. “Let's do sailing together.” I'm like, “Absolutely, we haven't done a glamorous thing.” There's one thing to have an intention, and you say, “I need to have this intention for eight weeks.” Some of it becomes real. I don't think that's an intention. I think that's just wishful thinking. It's not a thing to always have an intention and what happens over time.

What happens in some ways as you start to see the world through that set of glasses, then it recreates. It's like everything builds on itself. It's not like you can have an intention to be a billionaire or to go into space. You can have that intention. Those are all interesting options. William Shatner did it, which I thought was funny. When are they going to put Lassie up in space? It’s my only question. I don't know about you. When I was growing up, there was this show about a guy with a horse. I'm like, "Let's put Mister Ed in space and see how that works." It's less about the tangible. It's like ways of being intentional about a way of being. It’s something that you can step into over time.

It's something about the intention. It's like you want to create something that's more permanent in nature, not just temporary glasses, but you're changing the way you see.

It's just the way you see the world.

Speaking of the way you see the world, what have been the things in your life that you've learned about yourself as you've been on the journey to this point? What are the lessons you've learned about yourself that you want to share? You shared a lot already, but I want to know what is on your mind right now about doing lessons.

I always find it interesting when people give their a few lessons. I always am like, “What are the real assets?” What is it that would be useful to hear? It's not just a repeat of all the other silly things everybody else has said. I think the biggest lesson that I learned and that I get the teachers is that the real gift of who each of us is always with us. It just has to be given room for it to show up.

The truth is that each of us is so dang unique, and the world tries to have us fit into a box. It was always trying to have a spin into some box because then everybody can be safe because then they know what to do with this, that I know what we are and know how to relate to us and all those things. I never met anybody that fit any of those descriptions. None of us ever do. To be okay and to stand tall with whatever it is that we are independent of all the other stuff, it’s probably the greatest opportunity and challenge that we all face.

I think this is well modeled in the work you do. This is what you get people to do. It is to connect with their purpose in a way that it’s not just some cookie-cutter way of describing the work that they're doing, but instead to dream deep into their heart and say, “What is it that I'm here to do?” What you just said connects with that. It's like getting out of that box and seeing that you're so much more than just your title, whatever it is that people label you as. You're more than that.

No big steps occur on a given day, only little steps. But they add up over time.

I'm not suggesting that those things aren't important. I think the truth is, if you went to Harvard Business School, that's great. If you got an Olympic gold medal, I would like to know what you did. I would like you to tell me the story even if you told them a thousand times. This is cool. My other insight is related to what we just talked about.

If we look at the world authorities, we have a lot of conversations about the authorities these days, whether we think it's Facebook or the Russians, Chinese, our parents, or what people are allowing us to do or not to do. The authorities, it's interesting, we use that phrase, and everybody seems to be upset at whoever the authorities are for having not taken care of them. Everybody's a little pissed. What's interesting is if you look at the core of the word authorities, is the word author.

What authorities mean is they're the ones who are authoring our life, and we give them the power to author our lives. When it doesn't turn out the way we want it to, we blame them. There's something wrong with that contract. By the nature of the beast, it doesn't work. It has never worked. In some sense, the real opportunity that we all have in life that we spend most of our life approaching is to become, for the first time in our life, the author of the story and the jury.

It's what every truly great story or trilogy, whether that's Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, any of the Marvels, is at its core, it's the question of how do you offer your story? Tony Stark becoming Ironman in that first movie is the story of his authorship of deciding he is the author of his leadership in a different way and achieves a different outcome. Batman is one of them. All of them have that piece at their core. The truth is we look at those and go, “We're never going to have superpowers." We don't need superpowers. What we do need is to be the author of our own journey for which we get to be in the movie.

In some ways, the good news is that the events around us are they're happening all the time, but we still have to write the script because that's the one that we have in our head. The question is, what story do you have? Is it a story that is a compelling story of adversity and opportunity or is it a story of being the victim and having never been given a chance? It's the same events. That's not bad. It's taken me a long time to figure this out.

It's well said, and it's a great segue because even laying them up there and I say, “This is where we're headed to next,” which is to talk about stories or books. Our last question is, what are 1 or 2 books that had an impact on you and why?

I'm such a book guy. I would say Lord Of The Rings because I've read them when I was a teenager. I re-read it at the beginning of the COVID, and it was the perfect book to read if you want to read a book that's about times of uncertainty and darkness and what does it mean to bring the light back. As you're reading, you're like, “Okay."

Tolkien, as it turns out, was one of the great researchers around the origins of all the old stories, the Bible. He was a scholar of religion and of all Nordic tales. Gandalf, for example, is an old Nordic name. He pulled all those stories together. Did he create it from scratch? No, I don't think so. He embodied a set of stories, and then he gave them life.

To relate it to that, also, we read Dune. You read these when you're like 16, 17, 18, and then you read them 30, 40 years later. You're a different person. As you're reading the book, you're also reconnecting to who you were when you were 16 or 17 and remember how you reacted then versus how you're reacting now. You're like, “This is so wild. This is interesting.” It's not the same book because you're not the same person.

VCP 156 | Discover Your True Purpose

Those are at the deep personal level. One of my fondest books is the book by Marcus Aurelius. It's the first leadership book ever written. It's called The Emperor's Handbook. It’s one version of it. He was a stoic philosopher as well as Emperor of Rome. It's basically treaties on stoicism. Basically, you get Aristotle, Plato and all of it sitting in there, but it is just amazing. It's very thin. All the books out there on leadership, there's nothing new. I've spent a lot of time at West Point Military Academy. It's an amazing physical plus.

It's like this big stone red. There's a book by Rick Atkinson, who won the Pulitzer for one of his other books, which was about America's entry into Europe through its invasion of Northern Africa. The pattern was himself, but it's called The Long Gray Line. It's the story of him following the class of ‘66 that went to Vietnam. He follows them for 40 years. He writes this book about their journey in life and everything that happens to them and what it was like to be at West Point. It's like the other ones. This is done by the ones that created the Vietnam Memorial in DC. It's just buried there. Anyway, that was the one that just grabbed me and I was just like, “Wow.”

I got to say, the range that you just covered is amazing. I'm surprised that up to this point, 150-some odd episodes in, that I still have not heard some of these books mentioned. Dune? Come on. That should have been mentioned by now. I loved your take on this. There's at a certain age when you go back and read it, in some of these books, when you read them again, you get to see it from a different perspective. You get to see what you missed and what you can see as an adult versus as a teenager or as a young kid.

From that perspective, it's a powerful way to look into it. I'm looking forward to digging in again and reading some of these books. I'm going to be spending some time reading some fiction. Nick, this has been amazing. I am so honored and thrilled to have had you on the show. This has been very insightful digging into your journey into purpose and how you've helped many people find their purpose. How can people find you if they want to find out more about you?

Just go to the website They can see me run programs regularly, and they can always pick up Leading From Purpose and read the book. There's an HBR article called From Purpose To Impact. You could argue it is the book summary, but it was written 4 or 5 years before I started writing the book, but that’s life. Sometimes the books are shelved up long before the book. Those are all wonderful ways that they can step into the stuff that I spend my life looking at on these days.

Thank you again. This has been such a joy and a pleasure to have you on the show.

Thank you.

Thanks to the readers for coming on the journey.

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About Nick Craig

VCP 156 | Discover Your True PurposeNick Craig is the President and Founder of the Core Leadership Institute (CLI), a global development firm committed to waking up those who will wake up the many. Over the past 10+ years, CLI has helped nearly 20,000 leaders discover their Purpose, the unique gift that they alone can bring to the world.

In 2007, Nick began collaborating with Professor Bill George at Harvard Business School; this partnership ultimately led them to co-authoring, Finding your True North: A Personal Guide, which became the course book for the Harvard Business School MBA class Authentic Leadership Development (ALD).

Nick is also the co-author of the 2014 Harvard Business Review article “From Purpose to Impact” with Scott Snook, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Business School.

Nick’s expertise in Purposeful leadership has been sought out by both corporate and academic organizations ranging from The LEGO® Group and Ben & Jerry’s, to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

His insights from working with these organizations are captured in his 2018 book Leading From Purpose.

The Harvard Business School case study, “Unilever’s Paul Polman: Developing Global Leaders” features Nick’s work with Unilever.

Over the past year, Nick has developed a robust virtual delivery system for CLI’s programming, launched the “Leading From Purpose” podcast series, and created a thriving community for CLI program alumni through monthly engagement sessions.

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