Teach Leaders to Stay True to Their Mission

Talent Management

December 9, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

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 behavior, 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.

I learned this from my friend Frances Hesselbein when she was CEO of the Girl Scouts of America. Frances is a hero of mine, a woman of true wisdom who is Peter Drucker’s equivalent in the nonpro?t world. She’s also a very effective leader. When she was the CEO of the Girl Scouts, 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 at the Girl Scouts’ conference center just north of New York City. As we were scheduling the sessions, I was having trouble making the dates work. My only open day was a Saturday.

Frances said, “You are a volunteer. If you are willing to work on a Saturday, we are 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 center. 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, where they were having a light breakfast.

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 Frances walking down the hallway carrying my dirty laundry. As the CEO, she could have asked anyone on her staff to handle this chore and they would have done it. But she did it herself.

Frances 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 nonprofit organization. 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 little 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.