As a Leader, Does Mission Matter?

Does Mission Matter?

Some months ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered his department to redefine its mission and issue a new statement of purpose to the world. The draft statements under review were similar to the old mission statement, except for one thing — any mention of promoting democracy was being eliminated.  This was a big change.

According to an internal email, the State Department’s Executive Steering Committee convened a meeting of leaders to draft new statements on the department’s purpose, mission and ambition, as part of the overall reorganisation of the State Department and USAID. 

The State Department’s draft statement on its purpose was: 

“We promote the security, prosperity and interests of the American people globally.”

The State Department’s draft statement on its mission was: 

“Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world.”

The State Department’s draft statement on its ambition is: 

“The American people thrive in a peaceful and interconnected world that is free, resilient and prosperous.”

Compare that to the State Department Mission Statement that is currently on the books, as laid out in the department’s fiscal year 2016 financial report:

 “The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. This mission is shared with the USAID, ensuring we have a common path forward in partnership as we invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.”

Former senior State Department officials from both parties are reported to have said that eliminating “just” and “democratic” from the State Department’s list of desired outcomes is neither accidental nor inconsequential.

“The only significant difference is the deletion of justice and democracy,” it is reportedly said by Elliott Abrams.  He served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy during the George W. Bush administration. “We used to want a just and democratic world, and now apparently we don’t.”

Does mission matter is a question worth asking.  This mission statement is important because it sends a signal about American priorities and intentions to foreign governments and people around the world, said Abrams, who was considered by Tillerson for the job of deputy secretary of state but rejected by President Trump.

“That change is a serious mistake that ought to be corrected,” he said. “If not, the message being sent will be a great comfort to every dictator in the world.”

Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor for the Obama administration, said the new proposed mission statement brings U.S. foreign policy into closer alignment with that of some of America’s chief adversaries, including Russia.

Any changes in the State Department mission statement may not seem very significant viewed in isolation. But Tillerson has made several statements and decisions that indicate he plans to lower the priority of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

Mission does matter

Mission does matter, at least if you believe in your mission and want colleagues to pursue it as a beacon of intent.  And, if circumstances change, then so might the mission, not least if the previous mission has been achieved.  However, everyone in the organisation needs to know this and those who do not believe in it or are motivated it, should be afforded the opportunity to make other choices.