Context and Purpose


On Friday I had two MSU freshmen on my radio show.  They were graduates of a marvelous middle and high school program called the Art of Leadership.*  One facet of that program is that the young people write a personal life vision statement.  The first young lady told me that her vision was to bring joy into the lives of all of the people that she met. She said that even when people were negative, she would make every effort to listen to them, to help them to see the positive, and to maintain her own sense of joyfulness.  It was very cool to see this young woman approaching life with a sense of purpose that was both broad yet deeply personal.  I was uplifted by the vision and the light in her eyes.

I asked the other young woman what her vision was.  She said that a lot of times life is not really that great but that if you communicate and work with other people you can actually make good things happen for them and for you.  I will admit it.  I felt underwhelmed.  A vision statement should greatly inspire; it should offer hope in some lofty purpose. Our interview went on.

Later we were discussing how they became like a family in the Art of Leadership program.  And the second girl quite matter-of-factly said: “Well I lost both of my parents…”  She said that Denise, the program leader, had helped her face that loss and move on.  These thoughts screamed in my head:  “Mulhern, now are you still underwhelmed by this young lady’s vision?  Because when she says life isn’t always that great she knows whereof she speaks! When will you realize how misleading appearances really are?

I took two very lessons from this experience.  First, context really matters.  People’s words truly make sense only to the degree you understand the context in their thought and their life.

I was also struck by the power of two eighteen year old women moving through life with a vision and a sense that they belong and have a unique purpose.  With vision and purpose of their own, they don’t have to wait for others, blame others, or even follow others.  They have a direction of their own and can lead.  As we raise up our fellow employees, and as we raise adults at home, we should never lose track of the power that comes when they choose a purpose. As we help them find purpose, we and they can

Lead with our best self.


You can read about the great work of the Art of Leadership programs at

  • Dan,

    Your article on context and purpose struck a deep and resonant chord with me. In 1987, I left a job with the Social Security Administration to work for my alma mater. I was directly involved in choosing my replacement, basically because ours was a small and remote office. The young man I recommended was a good-looking, personable, fellow named David Goodreau. He was married and had a couple of nice kids. David seemed capable and intelligent, and was a religious father and husband, sending his wife and kids to Bible camp regularly. We had lunch and I was taken with his easy-going personality and quiet confidence. All in all, he seemed a good choice.

    A few years later (1991), the young daughter of a coworker at Michigan Tech was brutally murdered while jogging early in the
    morning. Her broken body discovered a short distance from the police station toward which she was crawling. Eventually, the courts convicted David of the murder and of stalking other women in the area. He apparently was a serial killer who practiced his pasttime while his family was off on religious or
    vacation trips. Until that time, I had prided myself on my ability to judge people – a skill gained while interviewing thousands of applicants for benefits over 20 years. It shattered my illusion and made me deeply aware of how little I
    know or could ever know about what really motivates people to do what they do.

    It haunts my dreams and casts a shadow that looms behind every decision I must make about another’s motivation. It was a hard way to learn about the fallibility of human intuition. Thank God the darkness of the depths of human depravity is balanced by the light of the sunrise of the human spirit. It was a
    terrible tragedy and will stay with me forever, though I did not know Jodi Lynn.

    Mick McKellar

    Info on the murder available at:
    little else is available on the Internet. Perhaps this is because the murder happened before the Internet because ubiquitous.

  • Dan,

    I have had the pleasure of personally coaching an exceptional young man while he was in high school (to suppliment his mentoring by the CEO of large Michigan-based firm). I truly enjoyed the progress this person made in engineering a life vision that he went on to polish while attending Michigan State University. Today, he works on Wall Street living that vision.

    Helping high school students think like a leadership coach and/or consultant is important as they decide how best to live their life.

    Today, in Japan, there is a new book by a former McKinsey consultant that is meant to help middle and high school students think like a consultant. “The World’s Easiest Problem-Solving Class” by Kensuke Watanabe has become an adult best-seller in Japan. This 117-page paperback offers two case studies: a kids’ band looking to increase concert attendance and a teenager saving to buy a computer. Both use ‘business’ graphics like logic trees, along with cute drawings. This simple approach also appeals to adult readers.

    Perhaps, an American publisher will decide to translate and publish this book for the U.S. marketplace….so more middle and high school students here can develop their thinking ability and construct a life vision to build on in college and afterwards.

  • Than you Mr. Mulhern for this message.

    For some reason, I felt more power in the second young lady’s mission BEFORE you revealed the context. I though you were going to go on to say that leaders have to acknowledge that things are NOT great and that communication and working with others is the key to being a great leader. I think you did point out the power of the second voice.

    The problem I see in much of our leadership today is that often leaders feel the need to stay focused on their goal, even when people disagree, stay positive and on their message, and they forget the part of two-way communication and working with people. Why don’t leaders take the risk of communicating and working with people as an everyday mode of leadership? If the goal is inclusive enough, you are a leader who cannot do anything but listen, and never be content to keep the followers on your message, but on communication and working with others.

    I hope that second young lady goes on to lead many using the insights found in her tragedy.

    • I went through the same error as you describe. I thought perhaps Mr.DGM would illustrate that both of these women were working toward the same goal but through two different approaches, though to perform the illustration would require choosing a dimensionality for the diagram: we could say that the first voice worked from the “outside”, by ensuring that happiness is found by people despite their circumstances; and we could say the second worked from the “inside”, by empathically seeking acknowledgement of pain wherever it can be found, so that it can be dealt with and energy redirected toward more positive feelings; in the dichotomy we could show that the “inside” is at the root of what we find along the “outside” surface, but that sometimes what is outside is too heavy (or too pressurized) to allow what’s inside to grow in a new, more positive direction. Perhaps the focus isn’t too intense — perhaps we could find both approaches in the same person, but really here with two workers we might find equal ergs to two “dualistic” workers but with the additional individualised focus that each one has chosen. This reminds me of Mr.DGM’s earlier meditation on the ability of several work group members being “greater than the sum of its parts” — a sentiment I normally take issue with but only because it seems to squelch or marginalize the individuality as nothing more than a predestined line for the group product — though thinking about it now, these two voices do match the criteria for this “greater than the sum” effort, but only because their individual efforts are autonomous; they don’t suborn to a unified authority which awaits their product. This is not just another way to show that Marx was wrong, it just proves exactly what Mr.DGM has said this letter: when you’ve found the proper context for actions (perhaps testing such an important contextualisation first by theoretically analysing their words), for behaviours, or even for a person’s goal in the scheme of things (without relegating it as a “niche”), you increase the definition of the boundary of that context proportionate to the qualities and attributes (strengths, in this positive tone) of the person. Sometimes that context comes first and foremost as your own worldview, as what changes is your concept of personality judgement — who knows?

      I also thought for a moment that Mr.DGM was going to pooh-pooh the second voice for wasting an opportunity to say something inspiring by saying something neutral. I’m glad he showed exactly the right path you could take to coming around to see someone as a potential internal moderator (who’s working for that purpose) instead of an opponent. Practicing empathy and neutrality for the good of others raises a hard-to-answer question about motivations, as seen by others and as wondered on introspectively. Are you helping them for your own good? Is your own good synonymous with the greater good? Again, it takes a third party to contextualise it (as we did with our illustration). Otherwise there’s no point of observation by which to give rise to a convention, and therefore no basis for measurement.

      On a personal note, I’m glad Dan could say this to us:

      “People’s words truly make sense only to the degree you understand the context in their thought and their life.” — DGM

      Something like losing your parents (I’ve gone through nearly the same thing) raises a question: are you like others, or not? And often times, even after you’ve given yourself a deeply sought-after and welcome answer, the question is raised again and again by, well, the rest of everybody. It can even raise another question: how much am I really part of everybody if I’m constantly confronted by this distancing difference? And even: is this how people are defining me, as a tragedy, a mere token of their own reflective sadness? The questions can pile up, and sometimes (and I apologize for being so digressively analytical), especially with that question “me and everybody else, what gives” unanswered, it can seem like a lot of weight, and a person gives up just when they’re directly confronted with a way to really help a lot of people: if you can empathise with the losses lived through by another, just ask yourself if what you’ve gone through is better or worse than what they have, and answer the question honestly. The answer is that it’s both, neither, it doesn’t matter — that question is the only one that, in normal practice of empathy, doesn’t have any placement and isn’t positive. It’s an erroneous question, and not answering it (so you know not to) causes the motivations behind the rest of the questions (which may be piling up or may be yet to be asked) to give way — vanity, guilt, pride, prejudice, and so on. Because for everybody who’s going to make you feel out of place by joining the masses of others in, sometimes coarsely, treating you like you’re different for your losses, there is somebody who has gone through the same thing or worse. The internal healing is really already done: you know on your own (best authority) that you’re alright enough to go on and that you are already practicing helping others get to the same point, hence the discovery. It’s a positive feedback, an upward spiral, a precious cycle. Perhaps there are many others who will continue to treat you differently, but they are the blessed mass, something you can fade into the background like any behaviourist or artist would if it became too difficult to deal with, so that you can focus on the subject of your work (the other voice that’s different, too).

      Anyways, that’s just what some people go through. I can’t speak for everybody. But great RFL, really great.

  • I just want to make one comment.

    Dave Goodreau did not only kill Jody Lynn Watts but he also killed a schoolmate of mine, Kathy Nankervis, whom was disabled with two small children. I believe that Dave Goodreau was her SSA worker.

    Let us who live not forget her life as well.

    • David Goodreau was Kathy’s SSA worker. He had also been transferred out of an SSA office in Illinois for attempting to rape a women though no charges were ever filed, there had also been unsolved disaperances of at least one or two of his clients in that area. There had also been complaints lodged against him after he took over in Houghton for leud gestures and touching of women in the office though nothing ever happened to him until he was convicted. He broke into Kathy’s house, abudcted her, eventually murdering her leaving behind her children to live a life wihout their mother. The police completely botched the investigation believing that she had simply abandoned her children as they went through the motions of their investigation until her body was found. Her disapearance/murder received minimal attention as did the failure of the SSA and eventually became an afterthought following the death of Jody Lynn Watts. Kathy was a good person as I am sure Jody was and have to believe that they are both in a place David goodreau will never see. Mr. Goodreau’s killing spree was a failure on many fronts and altered the lives of family, friends, and community forever.

  • This is in response to Mick McKellar’s post. I don’t know if this will ease your peace of mind at all but I think this must be said. I knew David quite well as he was my S.S. rep for the entire time that I was receiving benefits and I met with him in the office in Hancock at least 3 times a week for nearly a year (my case had many irregularities that seemed to need to be addressed constantly as I was being emancipated from my mother and was getting my fathers death benefits in my name and sent to me as opposed to being sent to my mother). I agree with you that on the outside he seemed in all respects to be a rather nice man , he was always incredibly helpful , and I do not exaggerate on this , he literally saved my life. I recall discussing the murder of Ms. Watts many times with him in the Hancock office during meetings as it was , obviously , such a huge story in our area. I don’t think anyone could have seen this side of him existing , he kept it hidden amazingly well. I am what I would consider above average in my ability to read someone and I was completely floored when it came out he was the piece of s**t who had committed those brutal crimes. People like this are quite adept at fooling the people around them , hence the over used saying when a person like this get’s captured “He was the last person anyone would have suspected” or “He was such a nice guy , always helpful and quick to lend a hand to all who asked” I had heard later about the rape , and the possibility , which I believe to be true , that he had other victims that we will never know about , and for that I blame the S.S. administration for allowing this man to continue on working for them and by transferring him from place to place allowing him to continue his killing as opposed to taking some form of action as I believe they should have when the signs began to present themselves that this man clearly was a risk to the clients who he interacted with. It almost reminds me of the Catholic church shuffling pedophile priests around even though they knew they were committing heinous crimes. I guess the main point I am trying to get across here is that if in any way you feel you should have “picked up on” what he really was that is simply not the case , there is no way what so ever you could have known , and I doubt even one of the profilers that seem to be all over the television these days would have picked it up either. You recommending him played no part in allowing his crimes to carry on , they would have happened no matter where he was at. That said you are not alone , I was 16 at the time I grew to knew him and no matter how hard I try to I can not seem to get the fact that I spoke to him so often about those crimes , and grew to know him so well (I thought) out of my mind. To a degree I think it shaped an incredible lack of trust I carry with me to this day about anyone I don’t know , no matter how nice they may seem on the outside. The saddest part of this may be how fast most people seemed to go into denial about this ever happening. I still to this day hear people say about how it’s so nice that we don’t get “big city” crime in the copper country , when I remind them about David as well as the horrible murder of the young woman in Calumet by Dale Gruber (who , it is thought by many , to have had two accomplices who were never pursued as he confessed to being the sole perpetrator) among the many other instances of violent crimes in the area , I mean my goodness even I had a man who was drunk level a loaded .30-06 rifle at me and fired two rounds before he was subdued , he died before going to trial. And in the end that may be one of the saddest parts of it all , the way people are able to be in denial and forget these crimes so fast , not because the offenders should be remembered but because it does a large injustice to the victims of these crimes who’s memories should be kept alive rather than simply disregarded because it is much more convenient. When we act as if these things never happen here we allow them to happen again much more easily due to the blind eye that so many in the area choose to turn to these crimes. I realize this response is somewhat off topic , and I apologize if thats a problem but I have had this “bottled up” to a degree for some time now and upon seeing Mr. McKellar’s post I guess it just kind of came out. And again sir , there is no way you could have had even the slightest clue. The SSA should have had more than a clue that something was quite amiss but not you.

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