Shortly after arriving in the new organization, I asked why we were doing certain tasks that didn’t seem to make sense. This was my first job as an airplane mechanic. I was very young, impressionable and quite curious. So I was disappointed when another mechanic told me not to bother asking. He said we were like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed, well, you get the picture. Was this the way the working world was? Was I a drone, expected to do what I was told without question? Would I never know the why behind the orders? This didn’t seem like the kind of atmosphere that would inspire the best in workers like me.
After I had been in that organization for a few weeks I was assigned to a supervisor trainer who had a little different view of the working world. He made it a point to explain to his young charges why we did what we did. Though mission statements were not in vogue in those days, he understood that it was important for us to understand we were part of a larger effort and our contribution was important to its success.
While orders from above still seemed crazy at times, I no longer felt like a mushroom. I understood that I was part of something bigger than me and that I could make an important contribution.
That lesson has stayed with me and I’ve made it a point to emphasize the mission in every organization I’ve led since, no matter how large or small. When people understand why they are there and that leaders appreciate their contribution to that mission, the results are always a more engaged workforce.
There’s another, closely related concept that becomes apparent when a leader emphasizes mission. There are a lot of very smart and talented people in any organization but if they don’t feel their contribution is appreciated or they don’t understand the mission well enough to bring their expertise to bear, that talent is lost. When they do understand the mission and their contribution to it, there is no limit to what they can do.
When I began to understand the mission back in those early days, some of those crazy directives that I had first questioned started to make sense. No, not all of them, but more than ever before.
There’s one more piece to this. It’s also important for leaders to understand the mission. That may sound silly, but sometimes leaders don’t have a grasp of the mission and the result is always bad. Without that clear understanding, leaders have a tendency to head off in odd directions that have nothing to do with why the organization actually exists.
Leaders don’t raise mushrooms. Many years ago, that first supervisor made sure his team understood the mission and our contribution to it. The result was a more inspired and engaged team.