A mission statement of value

A critical insight about leadership – at the office of my daughter's orthodontist.

It's time to take down the holiday cards. But I am tempted to keep the one from my daughter's orthodontist on the refrigerator. I wish I could set up a trip for bosses across the nation to come to Rockville, Md., and visit Dr. Miller. They'd learn a lot.

When I enter Dr. Miller's office, perched unremarkably atop a building that holds real-estate professionals, lawyers, and medical folk, there is an immediate sense we've arrived somewhere special. We open the glass door and are immediately greeted by name. The receptionist asks how we are doing. She appears to care how we answer. There is a cheerful buzz of action in the air.

As my daughter is taken back to the operating chair, I settle into the waiting area. My gaze invariably wanders to a large sign. It's easy to miss when you walk in, but not if you spend more than a few moments there. It's a mission statement. These days, many places have their mission statements posted in conspicuous spots. You see it in hospitals, even defense contractors. I get a perverse kick out of reading them.

Filled with jargon and interminably lengthy, as if written by a committee (as most are), I enjoy reading them for the same reason I used to enjoy watching the end of "The Apprentice." "The Donald" would always review the shortcomings of an about-to-be-fired contestant, and we in our living rooms would get a lesson in how not to lead. It was an entertaining way to get business advice. Reading mission statements reminds me what not to do if I want to motivate and inspire people.

But Miller's mission statement is different. It is short, just five words. "We exist for our patients."

Those words tell me everything I need to know about that office. And they clearly tell Miller's staff all they need to know about why they are there. It inspires them to call out my name when I enter, to recall details about our last conversation, and to be friendly to me. It means that the billing and financial end of the operation is always completely transparent. It means that appointments start on time and end on time. It means that, at the end of the session, when Dr. Miller comes out to tell me something I need to know, I can be confident he won't just shoot the breeze and waste my time.

By reminding himself and his office that their primary purpose is to help others, Miller's mission statement, a cynic might say, would make his staff feel marginalized. But the opposite is true. The mission is an energizer – I can tell that it flows through everyone and every activity in Miller's office. I have never been in a workplace that was so positive and at the same time so focused on productivity.

Too many organizations seem adrift today, relying on attractive bromides and yesterday's business jargon to get by. They have "visions" and convene "sessions" where plans are made. Employees are "empowered," because if they aren't, there will be a revolt. Workers just aren't motivated, so customers are asked to fill out forms praising them. It all seems designed to cover up a hollow core. The leader has failed to set a north star.

This leadership desert, ironically, appears to be spreading even as leadership courses, seminars, and books flood the market.

I don't know where Miller got his mission mojo. He was a military dentist, so maybe he learned it at officer school. Maybe it's just who he is. Maybe he just happened upon the right combination of staff. Maybe it's a combination of luck and hard work.

I wish more organization heads would start to think about what they are really doing with their workplaces – and their lives, too. If they toured Miller's office, some may decide that they just don't care as much as he does. They'll go on to do some other job. But others may look at that sign on the wall and decide that they, too, exist for a purpose beyond just getting through the workday without a crisis. Perhaps they will carry that message back to their employees. Maybe if enough leaders do this, we'll all be better off.

That's a lot of maybes. Sit- ting in the waiting area, though, I have no temptation to go into the back and check on my daughter. In Miller's office, I know she's fine.

Brad Rourke is a consultant who works with foundations, nonprofits, and other civic organizations.

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