Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Vetting of a Vision

Last week, we vetted a draft of our campaign vision with our Board of Directors. The exercise was invaluable -- which is not to say that it led to a complete validation of the vision we advanced or produced anything close to perfect clarity on where we should go.

One board member said the statement did not fully capture the spirit of humanism that pervades the University culture. Another said it did not accurately depict the friendliness of the campus, a place, as he saw it, where others look you in the eye, shake your hand with conviction and smile with genuine warmth. Yet another said it did not capture the Catholic identity that had been so well-stated in an earlier articulation of mission, vision and values. Still another seized on the section that alluded to the Beatitudes and said that it should move from the second to the first page and be used to further elucidate the intellectual and spiritual foundations on which Georgetown stands. One trustee reminded the others that the statement was meant to be inspirational not descriptive, a notion the moderator seconded, saying the statement was meant to be a "locker room" talk not a game plan. One director opined that the statement didn't capture the happiness of the student experience while others focused their efforts on the need to clarify certain word choices and phrases.

So, with such a range of opinions expressed, why did I consider the exercise successful? First of all, the Directors were engaged. Their reactions were thoughtful and heartfelt. They cared about where the University was going and how it described its animating passions and guiding forces. Second, we learned a great deal about what was most important to those that spoke up which will allow us to find the campaign project or initiative that is closest to their hearts or most consonant with their hopes. Third, they learned more about each other which will help them bond and better understand one another which can only make future deliberations more considerate and productive. Finally, all could better understand the challenge of melding multifarious views into a more cohesive case for support and a greater spirit of common cause. And that task, the one of melding many into one, is a challenge that requires deliberate resolve and patient persistence, one that will never satisfy any single individual, most especially the writer of such statements, but one that will produce a greater sense of community.

Ralph Ellison said, "American is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many." Our founders, foreseeing that fate, adopted as a motto for a new democracy, "e pluribus unum (from many, one) ." And the early leaders of Georgetown made their motto "Utraque Unum, (from two into one), which comes from the epistle to the Ephesians, but the University's website notes, "As is the way in universities, the two words have taken on a variety of meanings from other contexts; the accommodation of learning and faith; the gathering of the sciences and the arts; and most moving of all, the joining of the blue and gray after the Civil War. It is hard not to think that the original choice of this text looked also to the fit of the old faith into the new Republic, the dream of Archbishop Carroll (Georgetown's founder)."

It's nothing new, this challenge of vetting a vision, of listening to many different stakeholders and trying to incorporate as many ideas and aspirations as possible without losing the "oneness" that makes the parts cohere, that creates a whole greater, deeper and stronger than the sum of the parts.

The formulation and reformulation of vision, with all it entails -- from its first articulation from a formative thinker, through the process of incorporation and accommodation, of creating a bigger tent without breaking the main mast -- is the real challenge of every great leader and the real mission of every lasting enterprise and institution.

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