This past week, we began our leadership development program in our division. It’s a program that we offer every two years, although with the impending retirement of over 60% of our administrators in the next 8-10 years, we may have to offer it every year. Our first session is always about mission and vision. It is a crucial component of the leadership challenge and one that took me a long time to fully understand.
I remember when mission and vision came into the education sector in the early to middle 1990’s. Initially, I didn’t see the importance of developing a mission statement for my school, partly because of my immaturity as a leader and partly because of the process. I was steeped with a bias that if it wasn’t practical, why would I spend time on it. And early on, I didn’t see the practicality of mission statements. It was a statement that we spent hours/days developing and wordsmithing and then we would find someone who was good at calligraphy to put it on some paper, frame it and hang it in our halls. At that time, it was a compliance activity at best with very little commitment attached.
Thank goodness I’ve matured as a leader (or at least I hope I have) and now more fully understand the critical need of schools and school divisions to focus on their mission and vision. Although matured as a leader, I still like to keep things simple and so I define mission as “Why we are here” and vision as “Where we want to be in five years.” In those terms it is easy to recognize why mission and vision play such a critical role in system and school planning.
One of the slides that I share in my presentation is about the leader’s challenge: “Fulfilling the mission. A mission statement is a covenant with the people we serve- it is a promise. It is important to deliver on that promise.” When we place our mission statements on our websites and in our schools, we are publically committing to that promise. The more that our actions align with our mission, the more trust we build with our stakeholders. When we make this public statement, we are held to that action. The example I use comes from my opening address to staff this year. I stated that by Christmas, I would meet with every school staff in our division. I have to deliver on that promise or my credibility is impacted. By making it public, I’m held to a higher accountability and so it is the same with our public mission statements.
The power of vision is that it brings us to a world that we want to create through continuous improvement. In truth, vision should never be quite achieved because we should always be strving to get better. As we get closer to our preferred state, we set the bar a little higher. Unfortunately, the term continuous improvement has been misdefined because of its deficit origin. Continuous improvement does not assume weakness but rather the desire to just get better, hone your craft, just as the musician, artist or athlete. I would venture to say that few leaders are asked to “just maintain the staus quo!” Continuous improvement is directly linked to our vision.
In order for mission and vision to be alive in systems, it needs to be reviewed on an annual basis. We need to ensure that why we are here and where we want to be in five years is still relevant. The discussion with your staffs should be quite frank and probably a little messy. It is not easy work creating urgency to move a school or system ahead. In the end however, everybody needs to sign off publicly that they are committed to the mission and vision so the whole group can ensure accountability. Without that commitment, your ability for continuous improvement is compromised and the status quo will remain, which is unacceptable to support the needs of today’s students.
Leaders, both formal and informal need to ensure that mission and vision is realized. And so I ask you to reflect on the question, “What leadership skills do leaders need, to make mission and vision a reality in schools?”