Recently, I did an assessment for an administrative unit of a modest sized urban school district. Because one of my core beliefs is that mission is sacred, I will often ask leaders if they can tell me their mission. If they can articulate their mission, there is a high probability that they have a leadership system that has been designed around mission. If they cannot articulate their mission, their leadership system is on default – leaders tell followers what to do. There is no clearly defined purpose of their leadership system.
Although it was posted clearly, of the 100 or more people I interviewed, including the Assistant Director of Communications who help craft the statement, not one could articulate the District’s mission. The most telling response was from a long time elementary school principal. When asked about the District’s mission, his response was “I don’t know, get kids ready for college I guess”.
It is unfortunate when organizations that exist to serve young people’s education, or nonprofits serving the most vulnerable, or government agencies protecting the health and physical safety of its citizens cannot articulate a clear and simple mission. We find that invariably, when mission is not clearly defined and understood, that individual leaders, managers, and front line staff – pick their own.
We have a growing conviction that our approach to leadership is deeply flawed. In John Maxwell’s book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, there is a subtitle: follow them and people will follow you. John Maxwell is as good as any writer on leadership. His work is some of the best there is. But the subtitle may just point out the flaw in our thinking on leadership – it is not about gathering more staff, more resources and more power (more followership). Leadership is about a system and not about individuals. This is not to say that leadership is never about an individual man, woman or child standing tall and leading the charge. But in our view, leadership is as more about a system than about an individual. And like any system, there are requirements that will cause the system to deliver customer value.
Therefore, like a software system, a circulatory system or a mechanical system the requirements of the system must be identified, documented and measured. This starts with mission, and documenting the leadership system that will best execute on mission. This is opposite of the normal pattern. All too often, leaders determine their mission, when in reality the mission should determine the leaders. The mission of the US Marine Corp determines the leadership system. It has determine this over 200 years of experience. The mission comes first. In many other organizations, mission comes second, after the leaders figure out what it should be.