The Mission Statement Myth

Michael Metzger

Since 1986, Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist, has directed a research project dubbed the Nun Study. He’s tracking the lives of 678 elderly nuns to assess the effects of aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Snowdon’s research confirms a clear link between the consumption of certain antioxidants (e.g., lycopene, found in pink grapefruit, tomatoes and watermelon), an exercise program, an optimistic outlook and aging successfully. Yet the Nun Study has found an additional correlation that challenges a commonly held mantra about mission statements.1

Snowdon’s study has been conducted with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Wisconsin. The participants, ranging in age from 75 to 104, agreed to provide access to their medical and personal histories and, after death, to donate their brain tissue to the project. This gave the project two unique aspects. It was longitudinal (the same nuns are tracked over a long period of time) and it was controlled (the environment for all the nuns was consistent – similar foods, similar tasks, etc.). Snowdon discovered the same magic that makes Paul Harvey’s broadcasts so compelling.

What’s Paul Harvey best known for? The rest of the story. He’s a storyteller. Good stories are like Post-It Notes – they make things like mission statements sticky. “Ethnologists have shown that culture is transmitted mainly through stories – anecdotes, jokes – but not in formal doctrines or theories,” writes Stephen Denning.2 When CEO Howard Schultz was asked about Starbucks’ growth, he reframed his answer as a story: “We’re not about filling stomachs but filling souls.” This story is a metaphor for Starbucks’ mission of creating a “third place.” You’ll remember Schultz’ story more than Starbucks’ mission. I’ll prove it.

Take this mission statement of a well known company (from Gary Yukl’s Leadership in Organizations): “We will create an empowered organization to unleash our creativity and focus our energies in cooperative effort; it will enable us to develop and build the best personal vehicles in the world, vehicles that people will treasure owning because they are fun to use, they are reliable, they keep people comfortable and safe, and they enable people to have freedom of movement in their environment without harming it.” OK, close your eyes right now and answer this question: how much of the nun story do you remember? How much of this mission statement can you repeat?

We’re famous for piling on tired cliches of management jargon – “empowered organization,” “unleash our creativity,” “principle-centered leadership,” and “passionate people” – that really mean very little to anyone. They’re not compelling because they don’t tell a story. “Stories are ‘more true’ than facts because stories are multi-dimensional,” writes Annette Simmons. “Truth with a capital ‘T’ has many layers. Facts need the context of when, who, and where to become Truths.”3

When churches and other Christian institutions start writing mission statements, it is almost always a sign that they’ve already lost their mission, says James Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light. His study of how Christian colleges and universities abandon their religious identity over time uncovers the myth about mission statements. Of course Christians are called to a mission in the world. But highlighting the statement often indicates it’s become nothing more than a slogan. It’s an icon but isn’t sticking in our imagination. Only stories do that. ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart, writes Bill Pullman, author of His Dark Materials.

If you don’t buy the mission statement myth, ask yourself why you don’t have one hanging on a wall at home. Families transmit their culture through stories. My family wasn’t particularly good at storytelling yet one Thanksgiving weekend I remember my dad describing growing up in Chicago. He was born in 1929 – the year of the Great Depression. In high school he’d get up at three in the morning to fire up a coal burning oven for a storefront bakery. Have you been up at three on a February morning in Chicago? His story told me why working hard was part of our family culture.

When we tell stories about growing up, ancestors, vacations or places we’ve visited, we’re transmitting culture. The best doctors listen to patients’ stories as well as run tests. A rapid heartbeat can be caused by many things. Yet when a patient describes their hysterical fear of needles and hospitals, the culprit may have already been found.

The Nun Study found a correlation between low rates of Alzheimer’s and high linguistic ability – a nun’s ability to be a storyteller. When the women were in their early twenties, each one was required to write an autobiography before taking their vows. Those who wrote in the style of a dry, monophonic style recorded much higher rates of Alzheimer’s: “I was born in Eau Claire, Wis., on May 24, 1913 and was baptized in St. James Church.” Those sisters who told a complex, textured story (“It was about a half hour before midnight between February twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth of the leap year nineteen-hundred-twelve when I began to live…”) tended to ward off Alzheimer’s. People forget mission statements because they don’t tell a story. They’re not compelling. Maybe we ought to stop posting mission statements and start propagating better stories.

1 David Snowdon, Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives (Bantam: New York, New York, 2002)
2 Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, California, 2005), p.205
3 Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence From the Art of Storytelling (New York: New York, Basic Books, 2002), p.33


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