Teach Leaders to Stay True to Their Mission

Teach Leaders to Stay True to Their Mission


I’d like to ask you to consider what your mission is by asking: What do you want to achieve and how do you want to achieve it?

There’s an underestimated value to articulating your mission: It focuses you, points you in a new direction, alters your behaviour, and as a result, changes other people’s perception of you.

I have only one caveat. Once you define a mission, you have to act on it consistently, not selectively. It’s easy to walk the talk at the obvious moments like giving speeches.

Anyone but the most appalling hypocrite can do that. But we establish our mission and prove its value in the small moments more than in the big ones.

Related: 4 Behaviours You Never Want to See in a Leader

Girl Scouts’ honour

I learnt this from my friend, Frances Hesselbein, when she was CEO of the Girl Scouts of America. Hesselbein is a hero of mine, a woman of true wisdom and a very effective leader. When she was the CEO, her mission was an oft-repeated mantra: “We are here for only one reason: To help girls and young women reach their highest potential.”

One of the ways she interpreted that was by not allowing anything – not ego, a sense of entitlement or a need for recognition – to get in the way of helping girls and young women.

Years ago she asked if I would conduct a leadership training session for a gathering of her major city chapter leaders. As we were scheduling the sessions, I was having trouble making the dates work.
My only open day was a Saturday. Hesselbein said, “You’re a volunteer. If you’re willing to work on a Saturday, we’re willing to work on a Saturday.”

I was embarrassed, but then I said, “Frances, this is awkward for me, but I’ll have been on the road for more than a week before I see you. There’s only so much I can carry with me. I’m going to need help with my laundry.”

“No problem,” she said. “We have laundry facilities at the conference centre. Just pile up the dirty laundry on the floor of your room and we’ll get it cleaned for you.”

That Saturday morning, wearing my last clean shirt, I did as directed, then joined several of the Girl Scout leaders down the hall.

As we were talking, one of the women looked up and nodded to a friend. I followed her gaze to where I, along with everyone else in the room, could see Hesselbein walking down the hallway carrying my dirty laundry. As the CEO, she could have asked anyone of her staff to handle this, but she did it herself.

Walking the talk

Hesselbein was just being herself. Without even thinking about it, she demonstrated leadership and her dedication to service. Her small, fleeting gesture was not missed by the women I was talking with.

The Girl Scouts is a non-profit organisation. Except for the executive staff, it’s populated by volunteers whose mission is to serve girls.

In handling my laundry herself, Frances was sending a clear message – this is how we help people who volunteer to help us. It’s not about ego. The mission is more important than anyone’s ego. In this small gesture with the laundry, she was reinforcing the mission in a big way, and it had a big impact on me – so big that 20 years later I still remember it.

Keep this in mind as you try to carry out your mission, whatever it may be. There will be small on-the-radar moments where you think you can relax. Don’t do it. The little moments are precisely when we reinforce the value of our mission in the biggest way.

Related: 10 Things Real Leaders Do

Marshall Goldsmith
Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and million-selling author of numerous books, including the New York times bestsellers, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There.