International school mission statements in the 21st century tend to resemble one another: they are often short, punchy, grammatically truncated (a series of verbs for example, or a clause but not a full sentence) and, if one is to be cynical, one might go so far as to say that many are not that different to mottos of companies that sell fast food, cars, paint, or razors. For obvious reasons, I’d rather not quote any, but a quick search of various school mission statements makes the point.
What has clearly happened is that marketing experts have advised schools on the right turn of phrase in the light of market research and, in the empirical and industry-dominated climate of globalized capitalism that defines so much of the way that organizations run, the idea is to have a mission statement that is in the norm of mission statements: appealing, competitive, targeting a niche but at the same time not alienating anyone and so on and so forth. Hence, they become barely distinguishable from one another.
More traditional mission statements might be slightly less “sexy” as they say, longer and less immediately palatable, perhaps describing moral and intellectual pursuits, but even here, one very much resembles the other, something about educating future generations (or leaders), curiosity and open-mindedness, respect, and global citizenship.
This can lead to eye-rolling and walking past posters without retaining what is on them. After all, the jaded will say, talk is cheap and the real mission of the school is not on a pretty-looking website or on a poster on the back of a bus, it is somewhere else, perhaps in classrooms or what graduates remember as their experience.
The importance of the mission
However, the mission of the school should not be a trivial act of marketing. It should be designed with care and should tell the truth. If the mission is not respected by students, colleagues, and parents in the organization, if there is no congruence between the stated aims of the school and the reality on the ground, then what is lived out is confused and even hypocritical.
Everybody in the organization should know what the overarching goal of their work is, what the direction of travel is. This allows for understanding and coherence. The mission statement also creates an objective, stated ethos that harmonizes practice. If the mission of the school is to treat everybody with respect, how will someone who shouts at children or treats them with sarcasm explain their actions? Students need to understand the mission too, as do parents. It becomes a blueprint for a code of conduct.
Mission and strategy
While the mission of the school is the rallying call for the community, the north star that shines down on what everybody does, a strategic plan etches out what needs to be done to move the school to higher ground within the scope of the mission or, to put it another way, to close performance and opportunity gaps within the reach of the mission. A powerful strategic plan, over a period of time, perhaps five years, might even change the mission because, once those gaps are closed, it will have shifted reality and aspirations to a new level.
Mission statements, therefore, are not only descriptive, they are also aspirational. But the operationalization of those aspirations should be broken down into strategy. Hence, there is a clear relationship between the school’s mission and its strategy. For example, if the mission of the school is to ensure that everybody acts with integrity, it should be because this is what the school stands for and does. However, the strategic plan might be how to reinforce integrity even more, through clear steps, at the levels of students, staff, and governance.
The Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model is a particularly powerful and cogent way of conceptualizing the tight interrelationship between the mission and all dimensions of the organization. It asks leaders to look at the mission through the lenses of work, culture, structure and people. If the mission is strong and true, it should be felt at every step of the journey, in every classroom, in every interaction, in all systems and processes. The advantage of a congruence approach is the harmony, clarity, and energy it gives to the work and those involved in it. When we know why we are doing something, and for whom, it gives us purpose and lift, no matter the level at which we are working.
Leadership, mission, strategy: six steps
If the leadership team identifies performance or opportunity gaps within the scope of the mission, these can be closed through a strong strategic plan. Good practice, following a number of different change management models (such as the OODA loop, PDCA iterative design, or Lewin's change model) is to:
- Observe the school carefully (data analysis, appreciation of climate and culture, interviews with all stakeholders on strengths and areas for improvement);
- Perform a root cause analysis of what needs to be developed (dig deeper, disaggregate the data, ask more questions, listen to more narratives);
- Create committees with students, staff, parents and alumni to develop a mission that describes the DNA of your school but also where you want to go;
- Test the mission statement with your community, listen to feedback, make changes if they are needed, take the time to work at it until the mission statement jumps off the page and has a ring to it that feels perfect;
- Design a strategic plan, again, through committees, that operationalizes the mission. In other words, it maps out exactly how to develop the mission further and how to measure progress wherever it has happened;
- Distribute the mission widely. Make sure it is known and understood. Repeat it regularly. The strategic plan, on the other hand, need not be known in detail across the whole school but it should be at the top of the desk of governance and leadership teams, and it should be available to everybody.
Now is the time
Leading from the mission is leading with purpose and alignment. It harmonizes all components of the school mission so that everyone knows where they are going and why.
Look at your current mission statement. Does it make you proud? Does it describe what you are about? If you don’t believe in your mission, change it, and start that process tomorrow. If your mission does ring true, then ask your leadership team, your colleagues, your students, and your parents if they know it. If they don’t, there is still work to be done.
Look through your strategic plan and ask yourself the extent to which it follows from the mission. If it does not, align it.
Finally, if there is one person in the building who embraces the mission and lives it out, it should be the school leader. For all leaders reading this, what have you done today to exemplify your mission and take it to higher ground?
Read the first of Conrad's series, an interview excerpt about his Leadership Journey. In his second article, he shares his thoughts on contributing to the global movement through Leadership and Innovation. And in the third installment, he discusses the importance of concrete actions in Leadership and Culture.
Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is the campus and secondary principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been a school principal, director of education, International Baccalaureate diploma program coordinator, and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India, and the Netherlands. Conrad is a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education. He teaches philosophy.