Want to give your family value and purpose? Write a mission statement

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A bit cheesy, especially brilliant tip from corporate America

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

All the parents I know are concerned about teaching their children values. How do we make sure that in today’s ever-changing world, they understand that some beliefs are timeless? How do we really know if they are grasping the qualities that are most important to us?

For a long time my wife and I were so busy responding to the chaos around us in our family that we never got a chance to answer these questions. But when I set out a few years ago trying to find the qualities that united high-level families, I continued to encounter a similar object in many homes. Some families call this a “belief board”, others a “statement of purpose”.

Could such a document be an answer I was looking for?

The first reference I found to a family manifesto was in Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, which was published in 1989. A management consultant from Utah with an MBA from Harvard, Covey has often asked his corporate clients to write a one-sentence response to the question, “What is the mission or essential goal of this organization, and what is its main strategy to achieve this goal? Executives were generally shocked at how much their responses differed. Covey then helped them create a more unified mission statement.

Covey’s innovation was to encourage families to do something similar and create a family mission statement. “The goal,” he wrote, “is to create a clear and compelling vision of who you and your family are.” He compared the statement to an airplane flight plan. “Good families, even big families, are on the right track 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. What makes them good is that they have a clear destination in mind and have a flight plan to get there. As a result, when faced with the inevitable turmoil and human error, they keep reverting to their plan.

Covey and his wife asked their children a series of questions, including “What makes you want to come home?” “” And “What are you embarrassing about our family?” Then the children wrote their own statements. Eventually, they ended up with their only sentence.

“Our family’s mission is to create a nurturing place of faith, order, truth, love, happiness and relaxation, and to empower each individual to become responsibly independent and effectively interdependent, in order to serve laudable goals in society. “

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I had a series of reactions reading this. On the one hand, I found the whole thing a bit old-fashioned. It felt heavy, heavy, and a little humorless. On the other hand, I loved the idea. I’m out of date! I also thought that Covey’s idea captured something intrinsically true: how can we ask our children to stand up for our family’s values ​​if we never explain what those values ​​are?

Around this time, my wife, Linda, came home complaining about a branding issue she had at work. Linda co-founded and runs an organization called Endeavor which supports high impact entrepreneurs around the world. For years, she has worked with brand gurus on Madison Avenue who help the organization identify its core mission and core values. It was a powerful, even emotional, process for everyone.

That’s when it hit me: what if we try something similar with our family? What if we tried to create our own brand, so to speak? Linda pointed out that brands have an external purpose that families don’t exactly have. We weren’t selling running shoes, after all. But brands also have an internal purpose.

Before I left I called Jim Collins, author of the mega-bestseller Good to excellent. All successful human organizations have a duality, Collins told me. They “preserve the nucleus while stimulating progress”. A family mission statement is a great way to define what constitutes the foundation of your family, he said.

Collins was with us throughout the process. We started off with the family equivalent of a corporate retreat, a slumber party with our daughters. I made popcorn. My wife brought a flipchart. I had put together a list of 80 values, from agility to zest, from books on psychology, management, and education. We discussed which ones applied to us. Discipline is good, but a fundamental family value? “Query authority”? We might come to regret it.

Then we asked a series of questions. What words best describe our family? What are our strengths as a family? What would you like others to say about our family?

In the end, we voted on one statement (taken from a remark I made when they were born): “Let our first word be adventure and our last word love.” Finally we added a series of ten statements: “We are travelers, not tourists; “We don’t like dilemmas, we like solutions.”

So what did we create? First, a clear ideal. A central finding of recent research on families is that parents should spend less time worrying about what they are doing wrong and more time focusing on what they are doing right. The family mission statement is a simple way to express what your family does well.

Second, a visual identity. Some people paint their family mission statement on the wall, but my wife drew the line on that. Instead, we got it printed and now it hangs in our dining room. Again, research reinforces this notion. Laura King of the University of Missouri-Columbia asked subjects to spend a few minutes each day writing a description of their “best self.” The experience greatly enhanced their optimism, even more than expressing their gratitude. Creating a family identity is the collective equivalent of imagining your best self possible. It requires you to design, build, and then put in a public place a written ideal of what you want your family to be.

Finally, a touchstone. A few weeks later, one of our daughters had an argument with a classmate. We didn’t know what to do, so we called her into my office. Our family mission statement was on the wall. My wife asked him if this seemed to apply. “Are we bringing people together?” ” she said. Suddenly we had a way into the conversation.

Parents should look for new ideas wherever we can find them. As Jim Collins told me, the more an organization knows about itself, the better able it is to manage life. “And one thing we do know about life,” he continued, “is that it’s going to hit you randomly and unexpectedly.” If you don’t have your own frame, he said, you’ll be life-whipped. If you do, you are more likely to be successful.


This piece is adapted from Secrets of Happy Families: Improve your mornings, rethink family dinner, fight smarter, go out and play and much more by Bruce Feiler.


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