How Your Mission Statement Tells You if You Try to do Too Much

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I am a former school leader/principal that had the privilege of starting a brand new high school on the south side of Chicago.

And I failed first. I failed the district. Our staff. Our community. Our families. And most importantly, our students. Ultimately, this failure led me to change the way I operated as a leader, and in turn, the way our team led our school. That turnaround was successful, and now the school sends 85% of its graduates to college. Further, our students rank among the top achievement growth gainers in the city year-in and year-out.

However, while failure in doses is a good thing, we would all like to avoid massive failure – especially when that failure trickles down to others that you lead and support. While I cannot go back in time, perhaps the most valuable lesson I could pass on to the next new leader would be to stay focused and avoid attempting to do everything.

Our startup high school was edgy, bold, innovative, and going to change the world by featuring all the education ‘experts’ ingredients for success. We knew that it was going to be the education that our kids deserved.

And that was my sin – wanting so badly to do everything for our students that we ended up doing nothing well at all.

This is one of the greatest contradictions in education – realizing that in a world of limited and unfairly allocated resources – doing less better is more effective than doing everything shoddily.

Besides waiting to fail, how can you know if you are leading your school off of a cliff?

The best starting point is to use your mission statement as a litmus test to determine if you can cash the checks you plan to write.

Here is our initial mission statement when we opened the school:

Our students will unite leadership and academic skills to emerge as innovators that revolutionize society. The students’ success in higher education and professional careers will enhance their positive community impact. We will establish the educational community, resources, and supports necessary for urban high school students’ personal growth into inspired and empowered individuals.

What does all of that even mean? You could not reasonably memorize it. And if you try to break it down into parts you probably arrive at the following goals:

  • Leadership
  • Academic skills
  • Changing society
  • Higher education success
  • Professional success
  • Impact the community
  • Providing supports
  • Inspired and empowered students

That list of goals does not begin to include the how of achieving those ends. And that is where it became exponentially complicated and overwhelming.

One of the first tasks for our rapid turnaround effort was the mission statement. If you have time, it is the best place to start. Here is the revised mission statement:

To inspire and equip every student to build a path to college and career success.

Notice how version two is simple, goal-oriented, and easy remember. And even so, it is still ambitious. In determining how to operationalize it, there were 4 levers that we pulled to work towards achieving it. It was hard, but manageable and measurable in the short and long run.

If you are a leader and find yourself overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis, the best starting place is looking at the mission and conducting a similar analysis. It might not mean that you need to or can change your mission, but perhaps you can identify the highest leverage levers to realize the key message of that mission.

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The College Principle advises and coaches district and school leaders to improve their organizations despite inequities in our system.

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