Author: Roger Osbaldiston
Date: August 3rd, 2021
Have you ever wondered why some companies and organizations just seem to lose the plot? Run out of steam? Or drift off course? They just seem to lose sight of their original passion, purpose, or vision.
I recently read an excellent article by Dallas Willard on this topic, mostly as it pertains to religious movements. He starts out with a striking story about St Francis and Assisi in Italy. He says:
“WHEN YOU GO TO ASSISI, YOU WILL FIND MANY PEOPLE WHO TALK A GREAT DEAL ABOUT ST. FRANCIS, MANY MONUMENTS TO HIM, AND MANY BUSINESSES THRIVING BY SELLING MEMORABILIA OF HIM. BUT YOU WILL NOT FIND ANYONE WHO CARRIES IN HIMSELF THE FIRE THAT FRANCIS CARRIED. NO DOUBT MANY FINE FOLKS ARE THERE, BUT THEY DO NOT HAVE THE CHARACTER OF FRANCIS, NOR DO THEY DO THE DEEDS OF FRANCIS, NOR HAVE HIS EFFECTS.”
— Dallas Willard
This got me thinking - I don't want my life and leadership to just become an exercise in “memorabilia” - where I slowly lose the essence of the true passion for what I feel called and equipped to do, and replace it with just going through the motions, or carrying on for sentimental reasons. Yet, all of us are susceptible to this, as are most organizations. Many of us start out well, with lots of gusto and passion, but over time this slowly but noticeably ebbs away.
Over the last few years, I also read a book and watched related videos on the “Founder’s Mentality”. This more corporate perspective talks about how our organizations and companies often start with an insurgent passion and noble mission to solve a problem, usually by a passionate founder, but then over time the growth of these organizations produces complexity and that complexity can become the ‘silent killer of growth’. The book also talks about dramatic sounding problems like the “energy vampires” and the “complexity doom loop”. It sounds pretty depressing, but I have seen it at work.
I have seen several organizations start with a “noble mission”, a strong focus on meeting the needs of a particular group or people or place or customer, but then over time, they let the increasing organizational needs and complexity take priority over the true mission.
I think this can happen when organizations begin to replace their ‘ends’ with their ‘means’.
It happens when leaders charged with maintaining and sustaining the core mission and focus of the organization begin to talk more about maintaining the systems and capacities set up to deliver their actual end results. When much of the effort of an organization goes into increasing staff numbers, better office buildings, corporate infrastructure, processes, systems, team building, budgets.... the laser-like focus on the end mission can be replaced by a focus on the inputs. Once leaders become more focused on their means of delivery rather than actually delivering effective outcomes, the doom loop has begun! Now, none of those things I mentioned are bad. In fact, they are often necessary in a healthy and growing organization. But they cannot become the main focus. Over time this shifting of focus can take the eyes of the team from their mission and purpose and slowly turn the focus inwards so that the end goal really becomes about maintaining the organization or creating a legacy. A leadership coach of mine once said “most organizations over time tend to become focussed on self-preservation”.
When I was leading a local nonprofit in New Zealand I remember one of my strategy advisors often starting our meetings by drawing a stick figure of a person in the middle of a page to remind us who it is we are serving. It was so easy in meetings to be drawn into a fixation on the internals. We need constant reminders to keep our original passion and purpose in view.
Both Dallas Willard and Founder's Mentality offer some reasons and solutions for this challenge so I recommend you read those, but I also want to offer a few thoughts for maintaining your and your organization’s original passion:
Do whatever it takes to keep the main thing the main thing.
Do whatever it takes (even drawing stick figures on your notes!) to keep your organization focussed on its end mission. Place pictures and posters around your office of the people you are serving, not just pictures of past presidents and achievements. Ask at the end of every meeting “how did we help _____ today?”. Communicate your organizational mission and vision regularly and well.
Evaluate everything in light of the mission.
Evaluate your staffing, budgets, and meeting time regularly to ensure the focus is on meeting your core mission not on perfecting the office and systems. I would rather have systems and infrastructure that were always being challenged to keep up with positive growth, than have everything we need, but a declining level of frontline effectiveness. Ultimately that would be like a chapel in Assisi becoming a tourist attraction but not having a regular congregation.
Celebrate mission progress.
Tell stories that highlight the desired outcomes of your organization, not just celebrating people for their loyalty or longevity in the organization. Reward people for delivering what is core to the mission, not things that are incidental. Add regular practices that create a culture of things that are central to your original passion.
Stay close to the frontline.
You cannot lead most organizations from behind a desk. Regularly engage and get out and up close with whoever is at the core of your mission focus. When I was leading a global student movement I started bringing student leaders to our senior leadership gatherings. Some staff leaders questioned this, and suggested this was not the place for them. Yet to me, they were the core of it, and if what we were doing wasn't relevant to them, then it wasn't relevant to the organization. Leaders need to stay close to their mission, so they personally maintain their original passion for the mission themselves.
Maintain your personal passion.
Above all, we need to kindle our own passion for what we are leading and promoting. It has to come from the heart. Sometimes I get tired when promoting and repeating our organization’s vision, but I don’t want to get tired of the vision itself. Keep close to the mission and the people you are serving to remind yourself regularly why you do what you do. Take breaks regularly to personally recharge so you don’t confuse general tiredness with mission tiredness. As David Whyte, a poet I have recently been introduced to, writes, “when your eyes are tired, the world is tired also”
The world is in too much need for you to let your foundational passion become like memorabilia you carry around of something you once cared about.
So I wonder, how would you rate the level of “Founders Passion” in your organization?
How would you rate your personal level of “Founders Passion” for your mission?
Do any of the suggestions above seem relevant to try now?
Read more of Roger's blog posts by going to his webpage here.
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