My uncle once told me that during World War II if an unidentified soldier appeared suddenly in
the dark and could not state his mission, he was automatically shot without question. I wonder what would happen if we reinstituted that policy today.
Being confronted with a "life or death" need to know one's mission would force millions of us to reexamine who we are, and what we're really about. It would save immeasurable amounts of money, tears, and heartache. Absenteeism would drop. Productivity would soar. Leaders of Congress, corporations, institutions, and associations would be forced to exchange rhetoric for real and meaningful action. People who linger in the shadows, leading unfulfilled lives, would burst into the sunlight of Possibilities and Power. Those who have never known what it's like to feel a passionate commitment to a cause would be catapulted from their couches onto the playing field, tasting the dirt, feeling the sweat and the sting of tears and having the wind knocked out of them...and in the process become fully alive.
Those who have never breathed deep the lilac smell of victory or felt the tingling thrill that comes from having accomplished a mighty task would suddenly know, deep down in their bones, that they came here with a purpose far greater than "to survive."
There are three simple elements to a good mission statement.
1. A mission statement should be no more than a single sentence long.
2. It should be easily understood by a twelve year old
3. It should be able to be recited by memory at gunpoint.
The truth is that all great leaders in history have had missions that were no more than a single sentence long. Abraham Lincoln's mission was to preserve the Union. FDR's mission was to end the Depression. Nelson Mandela's mission was to end apartheid. Mother Teresa's mission is to show mercy and compassion to the dying. Joan of Arc's mission was to free France. Nehemiah's mission was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
A good mission statement is so easily communicated and understood that a twelve-year-old could understand and repeat it. I was recently staying at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, while apparently a national casket and coffin supply company was holding its annual convention there. Outside the hotel a small group of demonstrators began chanting "Boycott mahogany! Save the rain forest!" They recited this over and over again as they marched in a circle carrying a mahogany casket. Now I never knew there were mahogany caskets. However, as a result of my brief exposure to this group, I will be sure not to order one.
Despite what one might think about the group's methods, the chant was a more effective form of communication. They stated an action to take an a positive outcome of that action in six words. If only our major corporations, educational and religious institutions, and all people of power could communicate their mission as succinctly.
A good mission statement can be recited by memory--even if someone was holding a gun to your head. The truth is that time is holding a gun to our heads--pulling back the trigger and reminding us
that our days on earth are numbered. We must understand the urgency and importance of our mission if we are to fulfill it.
The greater the mission, the more simply it can be stated. Yet so many companies and associations litter their mission statements with industry buzz words or such technologically complex representations that the average worker couldn't recite them if they were paid to--which, in fact, they are. At a recent leadership seminar I asked the 120 managers in attendance who could recite the mission statement of their corporation by memory. This corporation spent a small fortune in developing its mission statement, as evidenced by the elaborate, four-color, twelve-page brochure, which I had received in advance of the seminar. Of the 120 leaders there, only one could recite the mission. It was not the CEO.
Students at a medical college in California once assisted me in underscoring the importance of having a clear understanding of a mission by videotaping professors and administrators on this particular campus and asking them, live, on camera, what the mission statement of the college was. Not one person could answer the question in a single sentence. The president of the college actually asked for a few minutes so that he could run back to his office and look it up. The student reporter instead gave him thirty seconds to define it. When he could not, the reporter asked him, "Mr. President, how long have you been working here?" "Twelve years," the president replied. "You're fired," joked the reporter. The administration later actually confiscated the tape, afraid that it would become public knowledge that they did not know, and thus could not state--in a single sentence--what they were supposed to be doing.
Forgetting your mission leads, inevitably, to getting tangled up in details--details that can take you completely off your path.
A non-profit medical association whose founding purpose was to serve patients and medical students had gotten so far off its mission track that by the time the newly elected president called me in for consulting it had a travel agency, multiple real estate investments, an administrator who drove a Rolls-Royce, and a director whose full-time job it was to raise funds to pay for the prestigious high-rise office building the association had just purchased downtown--all while its patients were being underserved and its medical students were working double shifts and eating macaroni to survive.
A friend of mine was recently asked to take over the leadership of a local government-funded educational program for children. When she met with the teachers and asked to see the curriculum they had been using, they sheepishly replied that they didn't have one. "Then what have you been doing for the last two years?" she asked, incredulously. "Looking for the curriculum," one of them seriously replied.
I believe that all to many of us are looking for the curriculum, when in fact we should be well on our way to fulfilling and enhancing it.