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Mission Drift
Mission Drift

Avoid Mission Drift: Stay Focused On Your Purpose

Warwick Fairfax

January 20, 2020

It is hard enough to find your mission, your purpose in life.  But our mission, our purpose in life, can drift if left to its own devices.  Years down the track, we might be a long way from where we started.  But not by choice, by drift.  Mission drift.  For anyone passionate about devoting their life to a higher purpose, a cause that is focused on helping others — a life of significance — that is a sobering reminder.  Mission drift can happen.   To anyone.  It’s a bit like an ocean liner: A slight shift in the rudder by a few degrees can lead to a significant change in course.  You might have been heading to France, but you ended up in Iceland.

I am reminded of a book I read a while back called “Mission Drift” by Peter Greer and Chris Horst.  This book dealt with the tendency of faith-based institutions to drift from their original missions.  The authors refer to the original mission statement of Harvard University, founded in 1636, which, in part, says, “the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.”   Eighty years after Harvard’s founding, some New England pastors felt that Harvard had drifted too far from its original purpose.  They ended up founding Yale University.

The point of this story is not whether you think Harvard and then Yale’s drifting from its original missional statements is a good or a bad thing.  It is that if your mission is going to change, or the mission of the organization or business you founded is going to change, you want it to happen on purpose, not by accident.  Typically, those who start a business or organization that is based on a compelling vision that seeks to make the world a better place, do not want their mission to change.  The way they help people may change.  Their products and services may change.  But their mission does not change.  Southwest Airlines’ purpose is to “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost travel.”  Connecting families and friends through affordable, friendly, and reliable travel is still Southwest’s purpose.  As their many customers would attest, they live their mission pretty well.  The Walt Disney Company says that, “The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to entertain, inform, and inspire around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling…”  You sense that Walt Disney himself would completely agree with that mission.

How do you stop mission drift?  How do you ensure that the organization or business you founded stays true to its roots?  Perhaps you have a mission that governs the choices you make in your career and your life.  How do you stay true to your own personal mission?

It starts with having a mission that you have written down.  It is something that you can recite off the top of your head without thinking when people ask you.   For Crucible Leadership, for instance, the essence of our mission is to help people overcome failures and setbacks (their crucible moments) to lead lives of significance.  Our goal is that everything we do should help to fulfill that mission.  Whether it is an organizational mission or a personal mission, you need to review it regularly, at least once a year.  You need to ask yourself and your team, “How does everything we do contribute to that mission?”  Every person in your organization, when asked how their particular area contributes to the overall mission, should be able to give you a clear answer.  If they don’t know, that is the wrong answer.  Either they are the wrong person for the position, or their leaders have not helped them understand their role in the organization.  It is also helpful to ask yourself and your team, “Why does the mission matter?  Should we change it?  What’s the point?”  For instance, Southwest Airlines’ CEO could ask their senior team, indeed anyone at Southwest, does connecting people through friendly, reliable, and low-cost travel still matter?  Is that what Southwest should still be about?  I am sure  everyone at Southwest would resoundingly say yes and be able to give reasons why that mission is still important.

When you have that conversation with yourself, your team, or with your friends in the case of a personal mission, it should become apparent if you have drifted from it.  When you ask your team how does every area, every initiative line up with the mission, it should soon become clear if you have a problem.  If there are some blank stares and several people say they are not sure, you have a problem.  Or you may listen to your team justify why their areas line up with the mission, and you may be thinking, “I am not buying it!”

In most cases, certainly if you have the right team, if you are off course you won’t be the only person who sees that there is a problem.  Perhaps it’s that your original vision may be a little fuzzy or perhaps outdated.  If that’s the case, get together with your team and figure out a mission that you all can be off-the-charts passionate about.  It should, from a Crucible Leadership perspective, be one that has an altruistic component that desires to make the world a better place.  The missions of both Southwest and The Walt Disney Company both have that sense of altruism about their mission statements.  These kind of mission statements last: they motivate, and you are less likely to drift from them.  They are engraved on people’s hearts.

Then you need to ask yourself and your team why you have drifted from the original mission.  Perhaps you had some large customers that wanted a product or service that was outside of the mission.  Perhaps investors have influenced that decision.  Some might say to forget the altruism — it is all about the bottom line.  In most cases, unless you have a compelling motivating mission, it will be harder to get great employees on board who will stay, or indeed to motivate customers that you are selling more than a product or service, that you are indeed helping to make the world a better place.  Both Southwest and The Walt Disney Company have been financially very successful.  There is a reason for this.  They have stayed true to their hope-affirming mission.

Then together with your team, create a plan that, over time (it could take a year or more), helps your organization get back on mission.  If you have team members who don’t buy into that mission, it is better to let them go.  You are not doing your organization, your team, yourself, or them any favors by keeping them.

An often-overlooked facet of ensuring that your organization stays on mission is to look at the structures you have in place.  For instance, what type of board members and senior leaders do you have in your organization?  It does not matter how capable they are or how impressive their resumes are. If they are not fully invested in the mission of your organization, they should not be there.  That is as true for the CEO or executive director and their teams.  They have to be fully onboard.  To the degree that an important constituency is outside investors, don’t assume that they won’t understand the importance of having an altruistic motivating mission.  You just have to make the business case of why it makes sense.

In summary, examine your mission.  Is it still relevant today?  Is every area of your organization in line with that mission?  Does every person in the organization fully embrace the mission?  Do you have the right board and key employees in place who believe in the mission?  If there has been mission drift, have you crafted a plan to get the organization back on track; or in the case of a personal mission, have you come up with a plan to get your career and life back in line with your mission?  Just remember: Mission drift is rarely a good thing.  It doesn’t often happen on purpose.


  • Have you or your organization drifted from your original mission?
  • Do you have the right team around you who are fully committed to that mission?
  • Have you crafted a plan to get your organization or your own life and career back on track?
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