Thoughts about Staying On-Mission

About six years ago, I found myself speaking to a group of board members and seated heads of school at a conference in Baton Rouge, LA. The topic I was tasked with addressing was the relationship between a school’s stated mission and its resulting culture.  After spending over half an hour defining terms like mission and culture and community values, as well as referencing data from 3rd party sources and offering up a few defining examples of a mission shaping a culture (sort of thing), I shifted our focus toward collegial dialogue around the topic.  What ensued during that time has stayed with me to this day.  

Over and over, it became apparent that most board members in the room had little to no confidence in re-stating their particular school’s mission, often showing some discomfort even putting it into their own words.  However, their respective head of school often casually paraphrased the language of their mission, made ready application points, and effortlessly carried the conversation forward.  On the surface, this may strike us as simply par for the course, as one is in the seat of governance and the other in the seat of management.  Yet, when considering the potential impact this mission-meaning awareness might have on board/head relations, as well as their collective efforts to lead the greater school community with mission fidelity, it is clear that this disconnect warrants further pondering.

Throughout our collegial dialogue that afternoon, the dynamic mentioned above often exposed a breakdown between the viewpoint of the board member on the application of a particular aspect of the school’s mission and that of the head of school.  Of course, this sort of disconnect is not reserved for board/head relations but can happen between respective board members as well.  For instance, just a year ago, as a colleague and I were leading a board through the mission-parsing aspect of our program, when attempting to compose an agreed-upon definition of one of the mission components, (Christ-Centered Education), an entire hour-long discussion ensued on what each board member actually thought that component meant.  If this is true for a board - the mission-keepers of the organization, how much more true might it be when considering the faculty, staff, and administration of your school?

At Arms-Length

While the tendency within organizations to unwittingly live at arms-length with their stated mission and its meaning is not a new concept, what has stimulated me over the years is the likely reason this continues to be the case.  I have begun to hypothesize that we, as leaders in independent schools, in an effort to act responsibly within our roles (especially as board members), subconsciously trend toward an arms-length relationship with our stated mission.  The reasoning behind this is simply that it allows for objectivity when it comes to the larger decisions we might face.  Our mission language is often that of broad ideals which are hard to practically quantify.  So, we subconsciously feel it’s more responsible to keep some of the emotion, maybe even the passion that the mission language might call for, tempered within ourselves.  And, lest we make impractical or short-sighted decisions that hurt the school in the end. 

As a leader, these are the sorts of things I have found myself struggling with subconsciously over the years.  Of course, some might argue that it’s simply a matter of having more time to talk about the mission in order to understand it more fully.  Yet, I suspect we would all agree that we seem to find a way to make the time for the things we ultimately deem critical to understand in order to lead effectively.  Topics like understanding the budget, the long-term plan, significant personnel issues, or any number of other truly important matters when it comes to successfully governing an independent school are discussed, but the mission is not part of those conversations.  

On Mission

It goes without saying that holding an office of leadership (board member or head of school) with wisdom and fidelity is admirable and necessary.  Yet, what if leaning in and examining our mission with more than just intellectual acknowledgment of its existence resulted in something more profound and critical to these very leadership efforts of ours?  What if the result of a greater awareness of our mission’s meaning as well as clarity on each of the components that make it up, resulted in greater ownership of the mission for us, personally

What if being an independent school meant, in a phrase, a school “on” a mission? Said another way, it is to be a school that exists for the acute purpose of affecting its clientele (primarily its students) with a set of predetermined, pre-agreed-upon values, to a certain ideal end. Often, that end mirrors what the founders of the stated mission envisioned as the ideal citizen who, in response to being affected by the mission values, would pursue the envisioned ideal society. Granted, while language such as “ideal citizen” and “ideal society” might not be used in everyday conversation between board members and heads of school, these words do, in fact, accurately reflect the most natural desired end of a given school. That is to say, to have a stated mission is to have an ideal that the mission is designed to achieve. We see this in language such as, developing students of high character…spiritually minded…who are trained in academic rigor…with humanitarian hearts …and sound leadership skills; or some version of the aforementioned. Few would sincerely disagree that a school affecting any of these qualities in a student would, in the end, be putting forward a positive force for a healthy society, if not an ideal one!  

In short, the mission of a school is its ultimate reason for existing. It’s why the buildings have been built. It’s why the faculty has been hired.  It’s why the occasionally long board meeting is worth it, though inconvenient at the time.  All of this makes the mission something to personally lean in and discuss, not to keep at arms-length.  Which takes us back to the question: Do you understand the mission of your school? Just to be clear, the question isn’t merely, Do you know your stated mission? Although, that knowledge alone might be a good starting place for many of us! Rather, the question that is begged here is more personal than that: Do you understand your school’s mission? Do the differing components that make up your mission have a clear meaning to you? Are they readily applicable to the differing areas of daily operations in your mind? How about the rest of your board? Since a school is only at its fullest level of functionality when operating as a unit, the next question that arises is: Does your school have a collective understanding of your school’s stated mission? Understanding often leads to ownership (the personal piece), which leads to stronger boards. This is the case precisely because a school that is unified around a collective understanding of its school’s mission and its application in daily operations, results in a board that is functioning at the highest level of mission fidelity. One can only imagine what might be the benefits to a school community sharing an awareness of, clarity on, and ultimately ownership of the school’s stated mission!  A school that has fully leaned in and thus, understands its mission.

Chip Welch
CEO of On-Mission Diagnostics
Founding President of The Habersham School

Chip has spent the past 15 years in school leadership as a Head of School and various other roles, including helping found The Habersham School in Savannah, GA.

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