Guiding Principles Don’t Belong In The Back Of A Notebook

I sat in a meeting that was becoming heated over the direction the organization was going. I wasn’t in charge, in fact, I was only there as a requirement of my position. The debate was going nowhere and I was squirming due to the lack of leadership being taken in the discussion.

At one point, I finally broke into the fray and made this statement:

“I believe this group is at a crossroads and won’t be able to come to a reasonable decision because this organization is ill-defined.”

The obvious quiet that followed showed me that I hit a nerve and that I had now put many of them on the defensive. One of the key members of the group turned to me and asked, “What do you mean by ill-defined?”

I replied, “There is no corporate sense among you that you know what it is you are striving for, trying to achieve, what this organization actually stands for?”

I was in it now. No turning back. We went back and forth. He wanted to solve the immediate problem and I wanted the group to consider solving the problem in light of the Big Picture. What was the guiding, consistent direction that the group should adhere to in not only this decision, but in every decision?

Finally, he said this: “You know, we already have a mission statement.”

To which I simply replied, “What is it?”

He began to fumble through his 3 inch notebook full of papers, notes, minutes, etc. Finally, he turned back to me and said, “I can’t find it right now. Do you expect us to go through the whole process of creating one again?”

At that point I left the question hanging and remained silent for the rest of the meeting. It was apparent to me (and to others) that I didn’t have to answer it. While the group had a mission statement, had adopted a vision, and had compiled a set of governing values – they weren’t using them.

They had fallen into the difficult position of keeping their vision, values, and mission BEHIND them instead of in FRONT of them.

I don’t mean they need to keep those ideas, dreams, and concepts on pieces of paper physically in front of them (although that appeared to be necessary). I wanted them to keep those things in front of where the group was headed.

To keep it in FRONT of them meant:
+ They strived to accomplish them.
+ They framed every decision, every discussion by them.
+ They guided the group as a whole.
+ They were the focus and not merely an exercise that ended up in the back of a notebook.
+ They were constantly referred to.
+ They were known (well known) by every member of the group.

I mentioned that there was a lack of leadership in the discussion above. The main reason I felt that way was because the leader of the group had allowed the vision, values, and mission of the group to merely become an exercise that was quickly forgotten. This person didn’t do the thing that leaders have to do – keep the vision, values, and mission of the organization in FRONT. That’s why they are called guiding principles.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mark Lockhart

    Excellent piece Tim! Have seen far too often where organizations expend a huge amount of time and energy developing mission statements and core values and then they are placed on a shelf. A mission statement is a dynamic element of an organization’s culture and must be seen daily by everyone in the organization(keepin’ it in front). Core values should be displayed physically as a reminder and displayed daily in practice!

    • tim milburn

      I appreciate your comment Mark. Display it physically and display it daily. Practical wisdom there.

  • exynos-leynos

    I am guilty of this. I need to repent. Thanks, Tim.

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