Going the extra mile: Mission drift

Paul Butler, Newleaf Training and Development. Submitted photo

Within organizational development, you’ll often hear the phrase “mission creep” — this is when an organization broadens its focus beyond its original purpose, and as a result, dilutes its core offering and somewhat loses its way.  

I believe a simple example of this, is the fast-food chain McDonalds, which tried to be all things to all people and as a result, mean little to most people.

I mean, are we really drawn to McD’s for a Frappuccino for ourselves, a slice of apple for the kids and a burger?

Conversely, In-N-Out Burger continues to be incredibly successful because they stay laser-focused on what they do and do exceptionally well — burgers, fries and shakes.

So that’s “mission creep” — what about “mission drift”?

“Mission drift” is when an organization loses sight of who they once were. They’ve lost sight of their compass; their true north and therefore seem to be wandering aimlessly with a half-hearted crew under poor leadership.

I was reminded of this recently when serving a client of ours in North Carolina — they were formed about 50 years ago by a visionary volunteer who wanted to make a difference for troubled youth.  

He saw how young men and women could get back on the right track if given the right opportunity.  He saw that, by giving them work to do in the community, it gave them a sense of contribution and how it started to significantly reduce juvenile recidivism  — the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.

Wind the clock forward fifty years, and now this organization in my opinion and observation is suffering with “mission drift.” They seem to have lost sight of whom they once were; what they’re meant to be doing and whom they’re meant to be serving.

I see an organization steeped in red tape with too many layers of management. The team doesn’t seem to be cohesive, but instead departments seem to have become compartments, with an individualistic mindset focused on their own needs and wants.

When I was there, I could just feel a darkness that pervades over what obviously once was an admirable organization.  This was an organization that was built for a noble purpose. Rather like a great ship locked in the harbor, groaning to be sailed and steered by a captain of high character and high competence and managed by a well-trained crew, this organization seems shackled and restrained because of “mission drift.”

Therein lies the natural result that I’ve observed within organizations that have drifted from their mission — poor leadership.

This particular workplace has a “nice” leader, but he’s not a courageous leader — it’s as if he’s the lion in C.S. Lewis’s tale, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”  He has a big heart, but no roar. He has high consideration but low courage. My observation has been the individual employees overrule his authority and don’t respect him. I sense mutiny is on the horizon.

It’s sad, very sad to see a once great organization drift from its mission. What it needs is strong and steady leadership to steer it back on course. If it continues on its trajectory, I predict it will run aground, but before it does, any good crewmembers will surely jump ship.

I hope we can be of further service to them and that they see their need for such assistance at this crucial stage of their journey.

Organizations are really just a collection of individual people grouped together to form departments. So although organizations suffer “mission drift,” I believe it starts at the individual level. Individuals form teams, which form organizations.  If the organization loses its way, it’s often because individuals have lost theirs.

Leadership is the glue that bonds people together into effective teams and helps keep the organization on track and on purpose.

Rather like how a family needs good parenting to be effective, an organization needs good leadership to be effective. Rather like how good parenting can raise good children; good workplace leadership develops good employees. As time marches on, I am continually reminded of the value of effective leadership at all levels within our society — at an individual level; a family level; in our workplaces; in our communities; and obviously, at a city, county, state and national government level.


Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia (newleaf-ca.com). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].


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