Existing For A Purpose

Also appeared (slightly altered) in The Christian Science Monitor.

I almost threw out the Christmas card from my daughter’s orthodontist. I am glad I didn’t. I wish I could set up a trip for bosses to come to Rockville and visit Dr. Miller. They’d learn a lot.

When I enter Dr. Miller’s office, perched unremarkably atop a building that holds real-estate professionals, lawyers, and medical folk, there is an immediate sense we’ve arrived somewhere special. We open the glass door, one that looks like any other office in any other building, and are immediately greeted by name. They ask how we are doing. They appear to care how we answer. There is a cheerful buzz of action in the air.

As my daughter is taken back to the operatory, I settle into the waiting area. My gaze invariably wanders to a large sign. It is easy to miss when you walk in, but not if you spend more than a few moments there. It is a mission statement. Many places I go, these days, have their mission statements posted in spots where they can be seen. You see it in hospitals, even defense contractors. I get a perverse kick out of reading them.

Filled with jargon and interminably lengthy, as if written by a committee (as most are), I enjoy reading them for the same reason I used to enjoy watching the end of “The Apprentice.” The Donald would always go over the shortcomings of an about-to-be-fired contestant, and we in our living rooms would get a lesson in leadership. It was an entertaining way to get business advice. Reading the mission statements all around me continually provides reminders of what not to do if I want to motivate and inspire people.

But Dr. Miller’s mission statement is different. It is short, just five words. “We exist for our patients.”

Those words tell me everything I need to know about that office. And they clearly tell Dr. Miller’s staff all they need to know about why they are there. It inspires them to call out my name when I enter, to recall details about our last conversation, and to be friendly to me. It means that the billing and financial end of the operation is always completely transparent. It means that appointments start on time and end on time. It means that, at the end of the session and Dr. Miller comes out to tell me something I need to know, I can be confident he is not wasting my time. He is here to tell me something I need to know, not just shoot the breeze.

By reminding himself and his office that their primary purpose is to help others, you might think that things would be a bit of a drag. After all, people need to relax and what employee wants to feel as if they don’t matter? Well, it’s the opposite. That mission on the wall, and the way it flows through everything that happens in that place, is an energizer. I have literally never been in a workplace that was so positive and at the same time so focused on productivity.

Too many organizations seem adrift today, relying on attractive bromides and yesterday’s business jargon to get by. They have “visions” and convene “sessions” where plans are made. Employees are “empowered” because if they aren’t there will be a revolt. Workers just aren’t motivated so customers are asked to fill out forms praising them. It all seems designed to cover up a hollow core. The leader has failed to set a north star.

This leadership desert, ironically, appears to grow at the same time that a rising tide of leadership courses, seminars, and books continue to flood the market.

I don’t know where Dr. Miller got his mission mojo. He was a military dentist, maybe he learned it at officer school. Maybe it’s just who he is. Maybe he just happened upon the right combination of staff and it all just works out. Maybe it’s a combination of luck and hard work. I don’t know about all that.

But maybe, if they come to Rockville and visit that eight-floor office, more organization heads will start to think about what they are really doing with their lives. Some may decide that they just don’t care as much as Dr. Miller, and go find other jobs that they can get behind. But others may look at that sign on the wall and decide that they, too, exist for a purpose beyond just getting through the workday without a crisis. Perhaps they will carry that message back to their employees. Maybe if enough leaders do this, we’ll all be better off.

That’s a lot of maybes. Sitting in the waiting area, though, I have no temptation to go into the back and check on my daughter. She’s fine. I know this.

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