By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
I am a bit of a movie buff. Among my more arcane interests is a fixation with memorable, unique, or humorous lines from films. Some phrases make their way into pop-culture, such as Clint Eastwood, pointing his ominous sidearm and snarling, “Go ahead, make my day.”
Others transcend generations, as did Rhett’s infamous rebuff of Scarlet in Gone with the Wind. Then there was Jaws when the great white was first seen in its entirety and the sheriff intoned with deadpan seriousness, “I think we need a bigger boat.” A passage from Twister produces a smile every time I recall it: “You know when you used to tell me you chased tornadoes? Deep down, I always thought it was a metaphor.” More recently is the poignant and powerful, “We are…Marshall” from the movie of the same name. The acclaimed and award winning movie As Good as it Gets has many memorable lines. My all time favorite occurs when Melvin seemingly fumbles yet another effort to impress Carol, but then recovers nicely with his touching confession, “You make me want to be a better man.”
For over twenty years, a reoccurring phrase from the Blues Brothers, however, has left me bemused and perplexed. I am still not sure if I should be offended or merely amused with the protagonist’s assertion, “We’re on a mission from God.” The “mission” of this critically disparaged, yet once popular film, might seem to be simply to levy mayhem and destruction upon the city of Chicago. However, the dubious epiphany of Jake and Elwood is to “put the band back together.”
As mission statements go, this one seems trivial and unsophisticated. Yet, it possesses both simple eloquence and empowering efficacy. When most organizations develop a mission statement, they spend months or even years creating the perfect blend of sentiment, intention, and promise, often presenting it in flowery or verbose fashion. The result of this effort gets added to the employee handbook, printed on marketing pieces, and engraved on a plaque prominently positioned in the main lobby. In reality, these lengthy sentiments are often nothing but a thinly disguised marketing effort and not a mission statement at all.
A good and effective mission statement has several important characteristics. It needs to:
- be readily understood by those to whom it applies,
- provide direction and guidance in everyday decision making, and
- be short and concise, allowing all stakeholders to learn it, follow it, and internalize it.
Unfortunately, most organizations’ mission statements do not fit any of these criteria. The Blues Brothers’ mission does. Every time it is shared, it is immediately understood; it provides direction (albeit, often excessively) and it is easily learned, followed, and internalized.
Still their mission seems trivial and inconsequential. That is because behind every mission, there is a supporting vision. The vision of the Blues Brothers is to raise money and save the orphanage that reared them and which has now fallen on hard times. This vision is why their mission is so important. The mission is not the end, but rather a means to the end, that of saving the orphanage.
Mission and vision, however, are still not enough. Just as the mission is supported by a vision, the vision is deployed through goals. The goals of the Blues Brothers are simple and progressive: contact former and prospective band members, get them to join the group, hold a benefit concert, and give the money to the orphanage.
Therefore, the Blues Brothers’ “business plan” might be summarized as follows:
Mission: Put the band back together
Vision: Save the orphanage
- Contact musicians
- Form group
- Hold concert
- Give proceeds to orphanage
With this basic, yet effective example as a backdrop, now it is time for some introspection. Does your organization or department have a mission? A vision? What are your goals? If you do not have a mission statement, now is the time to develop one. Start today; do not delay. Make sure your staff is supported by and directed through an effective and practical mission statement; do not let them flounder. Remember the astute passage from the book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
If you already have a mission statement, is it the hang-on-the-wall, marketing-ploy type or the succinctly worded axiom that directs daily actions and guides staff decisions? Maybe your stated purpose falls within this small minority of real, true mission statements. If so, is it short and concise enough for your staff to learn, follow, and internalize? Is it readily understood by all? Does it really, in practical actuality, serve as a guide for daily decisions and actions?
The conventional wisdom is that creating a mission and forming a vision is a group activity, something that is done by a committee, with input and review throughout the organization. This is done to get the “buy-in” of all stakeholders. Yet the reality is that when a mission is developed in this fashion, it becomes irrelevant as turnover occurs and staff attrition takes its toll. Then, every few years, as the statement becomes increasingly meaningless and obsolete, a new committee is required and more meetings take place to craft a new declaration.
I feel that this group methodology to creating a mission is the wrong approach. Yes, you do need to have the support of your staff for your mission, but its origin and construction is a leadership issue. The mission must come from the top. Then it needs to be communicated, not once, not from time-to-time, but frequently and on an ongoing basis. Over time, it will be embraced by those it is intended to support. In due course, it will become understood and internalized.
Via the example of leadership first, and management second, your mission statement will begin to permeate the entire organization and start to direct actions and guide decisions. With this as the expected outcome, make the initial draft or review of your mission statement your top priority; your future may be at stake.
[For the record, AnswerStat magazine does have a mission statement which can be found on page three of every issue. Our mission is, “To be the principle clearinghouse of relevant and practical information for healthcare and medical related call centers.”]
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From the April/May 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]