Just before the election I was on a London bus, the spiritual home of the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers discussing how they would vote, agreeing they may not vote at all and also declaring that politicians are “all the same - just out for themselves”.
This cynicism chills me as one of a generation that feels it a duty to vote and also never fails to feel a visceral excitement at the stately formality and privilege of it, reinforced at one election in the 1980s where the result in my constituency hinged on a few dozen votes and several recounts.
So much of the electioneering was centred on slogans, for instance David Cameron’s “Big Society”, Gordon Brown’s “A Future Fair for All”. The trouble is that we have got far too used to these worn out words.
If a slogan is deployed at all it has to capture the moment in an exquisite bonding of need and optimism with appeal to something that matters more than self interest.
President Obama’s “Yes We Can” hit this spot, transcending in a single phrase the questions of do we need change? Or, if we need it, can we believe it will happen?
During the 1997 election one of the Labour Party slogans was “Britain Forward, Not Back”, the ultimate in empty rhetoric. This was wonderfully satirised in The Simpsons when a Clinton-like character declares: “We must move forwards not backwards, upwards not forwards, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom”.
If you are a leader responsible for the overall direction of your organisation, beware this meaningless language. Your world in the NHS is temptingly full of it: modernisation, performance management, core values, learning organisation, reform, listening, renewal, respect, engagement, empowerment.
When I talk to staff in NHS organisations they report instantly armouring themselves against insincerity when they hear these words. They have already turned away. So what about those mission statements on which you may have spent many hours in nice, airy rooms on an away day, agreeing your communiqué to the organisation?
Remember Oscar Wilde’s words on Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop? “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”.
Many of your staff will feel the same about that mission statement, which so strangely resembles the statement of your neighbouring trust, and is equally full of the tortured grammar suggesting agonising concessions to colleagues who simply had to have their favourite phrase included.
What values will you never compromise? What do you truly care about? How can you express this briefly and simply? What captures the essence of your organisation? What will inspire your people?
If you can’t work out a convincing answer, forget the mission statement for the time being and get on with the job, letting staff see that actions, not words, are what define you.