As a leader, it’s OK to sound like a broken record on mission

Leaders should bang the drum on mission

Had only in passing heard of this guy Bill George before; he’s a former Medtronic CEO, apparently was high-up at Honeywell before that, and now teaches at Harvard Business School. Broadly, then, he’s quite vetted. He has a blog and he speaks/writes/talks a lot about “authentic leadership.” That’s one of those tricky concepts: leaders obviously need to be authentic, but the process of bringing up an idea like “authentic leadership” can lead you into Buzzword Land, and rank-and-file employees tend to tune out Buzzword Land and think it’s all just more BS from on-high.

Here’s a post from George based on an interview he did with Wharton, and here’s a money quote:

Talk about the mission — every day, every minute, every hour — till you sound like a broken record. Travel around the world. Do mission and medallion ceremonies and give people that Medtronic medallion that says, “Our job is to restore people to full life and health.” You start to say, “My gosh, people must be really bored hearing this.” No, they want to hear it every time. Bring in role models. Bring in examples. They want to know why quality on the production line is so critical. It’s not to satisfy some quality inspector over there. It’s because we know a human life hangs on the end of this heart valve. Or when you’re in the operating room, you know that if you don’t provide the right product to the doctor at the right time, someone’s going to die. I watched somebody die in Paris in an operation once in a venture we had. Or he died later that night. [The message needs to] pervade every aspect of what you’re doing.

That’s important for people to remember, right?

The thing is, at the end of the day, a CEO/COO/CFO/etc. is accountable for core business and financial returns of their company. You can argue about the specific No. 1 deliverable for each of those roles, but in a general sense, it’s the bottom-line. They want to tell you it’s the people, but it’s not the people.

The thing is, there’s often very little connection between “the mission” (or “the purpose”) and the money. Tons of dirty-ass companies (like an Exxon, perhaps) literally print money. Steve Jobs was supposedly an asshole. Apple workers in China commit suicide. Your mission can be off-task and you can still make money. It’s been like that forever.

So sometimes CEOs bang the drum on mission/message/purpose, but that’s what they do out in front of the rank-and-files. (At all-hands meetings, etc.) Back with their direct reports, I’m sure the “mission” barely ever comes up. You can bet your sweet ass the “money” does, though.

So I’m sure there’s a lot of CEOs who get tired of banging the same drum for the rank-and-files around the globe, thinking, “Gosh, they’re getting bored…” and “This isn’t even really MY focus…” 

But the above quote is powerful. You need to keep banging that drum. You need to draw a line from “A” (the mission) to “B” (what those people do) to “C” (how this all ties back to money). You must keep banging that drum about mission and message, because otherwise people won’t get it, people will leave, all that. You may not value your people as much as your products, but long-term sustained growth is hard when your core people are bouncing every week.

BTW, here’s another good quote from George (same article):

You’ve got to be yourself. We’ve got to get away from this “great man” theory of leadership and get down to [the fact that] everyone has qualities of leadership, but they have to be developed. That was the whole thesis of everything that I did. That’s what I always told people: “Just be yourself. You can’t be something [else]. If you’re a tulip, be a tulip. If you’re a rose, and you’ve got some [thorns], it’s okay. You can produce beautiful buds. But you’ve got to be who you are. And then bloom from that position.”

Yep. Root everything in “your own story.” And realize that leadership is less about deliverables — which will always be there — and more about empathy, which is sorely lacking everywhere. 


Ted Bauer


  1. I’m sorry Mr. George… I’m never impressed by the top leader of an organization – ‘talking’ about the mission every day.

    Though I have been impressed before….

    I once worked with a small company of approx 280 employees. The facility where we worked was clean and well appointed with one almost obnoxious adaptation to the decor. Each of the main spaces or common spaces had either the company’s ‘Mission Statement’ or one of the nine,’Shared Organizational Value Statements’ painted in big green letters on one of the walls. And at each mandatory ‘company-wide’ monthly meeting the President/CEO would get up and ask, demand really, if he ever failed to live up to the mission or values during that month, after he would say where he thought he failed. Then it was department heads senior management’s turn to do the same. Finally, any of the rank and file could offer up their possibilities for improvement before the meeting moved on to the open adgenda items.

    That was a company where ‘everyone’ always talked about the mission, in every transaction that occurred and in every interaction among the staff. That was an impressive company! Or at least, I was impressed.

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