Words are very important to me. When I write, I write carefully and thoughtfully. I am intentional about the words I choose. When I first learned about three months ago that a teaching position might be available for me, I began thinking about a personal mission statement for this new career. Since words are so important to me I wanted to take my time writing the ones which would best convey my intentions as an educator. In an effort to better understand the goal of a mission statement I started looking at ones which already exist. I looked at the mission statements of Fortune 500 companies, of non-profit organizations, of colleges and universities, of school districts, and various other institutions and organizations. I can sum up my assessment of most of them in one word:
Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about the vast majority of the mission statements I read. I was aghast. How is it possible that so many people in so many different roles in so many organizations could produce so many words that mean absolutely nothing? I read some of the worst multiple times and still hadn’t the faintest clue what they meant. They were full of industry jargon, marketing-ese, and public relations hogwash. I would challenge any person on the street to read any one of those mission statements and determine a) what they meant, and b) what the organization actually did. Yet, through all of that useless nonsense ran a common thread. It was an almost unanimous goal and high ideal to which those companies, organizations, institutions, and people aspired. That ideal goal: “excellence.”
1. the fact or state of excelling; superiority; eminence: his excellence in mathematics.
2. an excellent quality or feature: Use of herbs is one of the excellences of French cuisine.
3. ( usually initial capital letter ) excellency ( def 1 ) .
No matter what its geography in a sentence, or how many times it appears, a meaningful word surrounded by blather is rendered meaningless. That has unfortunately happened to EXCELLENCE. I can’t tell you how many times I saw it in those mission statements, nor can I cite statistics regarding its frequency of use. What I can tell you is that, just like a song that is overplayed on the radio, a word that is overused and misused loses its power and effectiveness for the reader, and in the case of mission statements, the participants in the mission.
I read one mission statement which so profoundly intrigued me that I went to the organization’s web site. There I found excellence spread like cow manure on concrete. There was a whole lot of stink and not one sprout growing. They had the departments of: organizational excellence, relational excellence, executive excellence, service excellence, and initiative excellence. I looked around on the web site for a while and never once found a Department of Barf Bag Excellence. Not to be outdone, I found a church whose departments included: congregational excellence, pastoral excellence, missional excellence…oh, must I go on? Seriously, though, what do any of those labels even mean?
Excellence, like so many other words I could list, has become a buzzword. It is a word that cubicle cruisers in marketing departments (or, should I say, Departments of Branding Excellence) stick in literature about their companies that gets people’s attention and makes them think someone in that organization actually cares about their product(s). The problem is that it doesn’t…mean…ANYTHING. They strive for excellence. They pursue excellence. They promote excellence. But, they never actually become excellent.
Can we stop being excellent now? Please. Can’t we just make the best products, cook the best food, provide the best service, or educate the next generation to the best of our ability? What good is a mission statement if the words that make it up mean nothing? The answer: not any good at all.
If I was told I could do only one thing as an educator I would instill in my students a sense of care for words and their meanings. Language is, arguably, the single most important development in human history. Language/words, both spoken and written, convey the entirety of human existence. Our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences, our history, our ethics, morals, and values are all shared through language. Why then are we so frivolous with the words we choose? When we speak, let us speak with clarity of meaning. When we write, let us write being mindful of purpose.
And, let’s stop being so damned excellent!