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Avoiding Mission Drift

Mission drift is a real thing and it doesn’t just happen to others. None of us have immunity. However, one consistent practice can help avoid mission drift at our most vulnerable moments:

Put your mission at the center of the table.

To say it another way, keep the essence of your mission—your unique calling and contribution to the world—as the lens through which you view major decisions or everyday dilemmas.

Here’s what I mean. Anytime you as a leader or you and your team work to tackle an unexpected challenge, a difficult decision, an unfortunate personnel problem, or even a global pandemic, you need something bigger than the issue at hand to guide your way. Demanding moments have immense gravitational pull that can shift your compass a few points to the right or the left without notice. Long lasting scenarios like the whole COVID situation can introduce new habits and new priorities that surreptitiously become a new normal.

By “center of the table” I mean that thing which is always in view. The thing that influences every conversation and every meeting. It is the grid through which every plan, every solution, and every decision is measured. Mission is the trump card you always have in hand.

“The River of Doubt”

A number of years ago, I read a fascinating book, The River of Doubt. It’s an autobiographical account of one chapter in the life of Teddy Roosevelt after his presidential career was over. Passionate about exploring the world, Teddy organized a group to find and map a river in the Amazon that no one from the outside world had ever actually seen. Some doubted its existence entirely.

The book takes you through the politics of the journey, the ruthless power of the jungle, and unexpected life-threatening disasters they encountered. Along the way it also explores some of the deep things that make Teddy Roosevelt such a fascinating leader.

At one point late in their journey, after multiple disasters, Teddy became severely ill and was heading toward death. The group faced an impossible decision. Teddy was too sick to travel. They had lost all their food and would starve if they stayed camped out waiting on the possibility he would improve. They couldn’t press on, the rigors of jungle travel might kill him. They couldn’t just leave him to die alone—he was a former President of the United States. In the most difficult of moments, Roosevelt’s son made the call.

“I know what my Dad would say if he were coherent enough to speak up on this. He would want us to go on without him. He’s too weak to transport and even if we could, he would slow us down so much that we might starve before we make it out of the jungle. He lived by a principle he would want us to follow. ‘No man is more important than the mission—not even me’.

I won’t give away the story, but I will underscore the point he made. Our mission is always the important thing. There are lots of things that will try to steal focus away from our mission, but none of them has that right.

Beware of Mission Theives

One strategy for avoiding mission drift is to be on the alert for predictable thieves that will attempt to steal center stage.

Successful Programs

Over time, every endeavor develops trusted methodologies—the means by which we have been successful in the past. These programs and strategies become so important to daily operations that we actually see them as essential to our identity. But, our methods are never the point. The programs we offer, the way we deliver value to people, the ways we seek to accomplish our goals are only our best current tools. They are like a typewriter: Indispensible until it isn’t.

Consider a difficult example. Right now, Churches can’t do the big weekly worship event like they have for so long. That challenge feels like a threat to our very essence. But, is it really? Does our inability to meet as a large group for 60-90 minutes once a week change our mission? What if instead of using our energies to complain and worry and bemoan what we can’t do… What if we went back to the drawing board, put crystal clear mission at the center of the table, and started to dream all over again about what we could do?


The presence or the fear of conflict drives people to avoid risk, to squash adventurous creativity, and to seek anything that would calm the waters. We get seduced into the lie that the absence of conflict is the same as the presence of unity and/or peace. The truth is, you cannot lead without conflict—without surfacing it or even causing it. Conflict is not easy, but if avoiding it is your goal, then you have decided to hold your mission hostage to anyone who merely threatens a contrary opinion.

Organizational Stakeholders:

Every organization, every group has them. These are people who carry a larger than normal influence on every decision, every proposal. They pour gasoline on the fire of momentum if they are aligned with your mission. They may even be people who are not fully aware of their influence. But, the moment their support becomes the criteria for moving forward, your mission takes a back seat to the importance of their approval.

And there are others…

Financial crises. Tragic health or personnel crises. Building projects. Tensions or trends in your community. Leadership transitions. Boredom. And, a whole lot more. These are the weeds through which leaders need to navigate every day. These are things I need to navigate every day!

Mission thieves steal our focus and lead to mission drift. Worse, they can draw us into a posture of long-term reactive stagnation.

The best immunization against the gravitational pull of these real-world challenges? Put mission at the center of the table and deliberately use it as a compass that points far beyond the noise of current challenges, personal opinions, temporary problems, or even security in the successful programs of your past.

Photo Credit: one of mine taken in Beechworth, Australia.


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