Is This the Best We Can Be?

The staff and board leadership had been working diligently for about two hours, engaged in some meaningful discussion around the organization’s mission and vision. I had focused my facilitation on keeping the dialogue moving forward, but also trying to stretch the participants’ sense of what might be possible in their organization. It seemed to me they were limiting themselves to typical mission and vision platitudes.

Since my efforts didn’t seem to be registering and since I had a good rapport with the group, I thought I would try a little sarcastic humor to break the impasse.
“Let me tell you what I think I hear you saying. In terms of mission, you essentially want to protect your members’ interests and livelihood at all costs. In terms of vision, you’d basically just like to crush all the competition so no one can get in your way. Is that about right?”
Laughter all around the room allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief and feel that my minor gamble had paid off a bit. The board chairman even shouted out, “That works for me. Can you write that up in some pretty language that won’t offend too many folks?”

I chuckled at his observation, pleased that he was getting in on the little joke I had initiated. Unfortunately the joke was on me as his next comment revealed: “No I’m serious. You‘ve really captured what we’re trying to accomplish. Can you help us write that up?”

When I reflect on this recent experience, I’m actually surprised that I was so surprised when it happened. Truth be told, a significant percentage of association strategic planning sessions could yield mission and vision statements just like this. Let’s kill the competition and make us number one.

When I work in the corporate arena, such emphasis and language is a bit less shocking to me though I still find it short-sighted. And it is not a total surprise when it comes from trade associations. But when it emerges from professional societies, I begin to think associations might be getting just a bit too business-like.

I remember hearing the author and consultant Meg Wheatley tell a story about mission and vision that came from her efforts some years ago with Hewlett Packard’s Research and Development Division. The employees had been discussing a vision of “being the best research and development facility in the world.” That spirit was a disconnect for one woman, who offered a provocative alternative simply by changing one small word in the original draft: “What if we became the best research and development facility for the world?”

Her shifting the employees’ focus to a higher purpose unleashed passion, interest, and energy in great force. Now when they cranked out the long hours of work on a daily basis it was for a greater end than just generating more profit, increasing shareholder returns, and beating the competition. Now the vision included making a difference in the lives of others, a difference that done right would still yield increased sales and profits and greater shareholder value.

The American Society of Association Executives proudly proclaims (and rightly so) that Associations Advance America, and its annual awards program is used to embody and exemplify this commitment. Note the external focus in this vision, advancing America. It’s not Associations Advance Their Members Self-Interests Which By the Way If Aggregated Among All Associations Might In Some Small Way Advance America But Don’t Count On It.

I completely understand that members join organizations to have their needs, aspirations, and interests fulfilled. But if we fail to help our members and potential members see the interests of the larger communities and societies of which they are a part, and how their self-interests can be fulfilled by addressing these more global interests, we will have done little advancement.

It’s not an either/or proposition; it’s an AND.  This was perhaps most eloquently expressed  by Robert Greenleaf when he coined the term servant leadership.

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"
By serving others we also serve ourselves.  And I for one refuse to facilitate another planning session whose participants cannot acknowledge this belief.

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