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Robben Island, corporate mission statements and Mandela

The main value of a mission statement lies in the process an organization goes through to create the mission statement

Former South African President Nelson Mandela

During my family trip to South Africa (discussed in last month's column), we visited Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. While there I met an old man who, as a teenager, had run away from home to join the African National Congress to fight apartheid. At age 17, he planted a bomb in a military barracks, and the ensuing blast injured 57 people. One of his co-conspirators betrayed him, and the man was sentenced to many years of hard labor at Robben Island, where he met Mandela.

Not exactly popular with the guards, the man was beaten and tortured, and when Mandela at last secured the release of all the men imprisoned at Robben Island, this man had to be carried out on a stretcher. It is perhaps one measure of the enormity of what Mandela accomplished that, today, this man is friendly with the men who beat him and the man who betrayed him, and sometimes they have lunch together on the island.

Whatever one thinks about the heinous act he readily admits to having committed, it is difficult to simply dismiss a man like this as just another terrorist. After all, apartheid was an entrenched, evil system, and one that, at the time, no one other than the ANC was doing much to end. Personally, I have always envied men who had the moral courage to fight evil even at great personal cost.

Fortunately, no such difficult choices confront those of us who litigate on behalf of the world's corporations. But that does not mean that our work is without moral consequences. My own view is that our work must have a moral dimension. That is where mission statements come in. I have long believed that the main value of a mission statement lies in the process an organization goes through to create the mission statement.

Unfortunately, in my 30 years of experience, I have seen a lot of bad mission statements. Lots of them simply boil down to promises to make or help the company make more money. But a mission statement has to do more than that. A good mission statement recognizes that making money is not a purpose in itself.

Recently, the litigation group I am lucky enough to lead created it own mission statement. And it goes like this:

“To develop, enhance and sustain a culture of conflict management consistent with our values of transparency, respect, integrity and patient focus.”

Our mission is not about making money, winning cases, or destroying our enemies; it is to change the way the company thinks about conflict itself. We want to move the company away from seeing conflict as a catalyst for aggression and instead view it as an opportunity to bring us closer to our fundamental corporate values.

I’d like to think that Mandela himself would have appreciated our little mission statement. He understood the need to think about conflict in a new way. Mandela once wrote about his departure from Robben Island:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

None of us are Mandela, but we all ought to do what we can.

I think that if we corporate litigators could be even a little like Mandela, we could help change the world, one company at a time, one conflict at a time. And if that sounds naive, you should ask the old men having lunch together on Robben Island.

PD Villarreal

PD Villarreal is senior vice preisdent of global litigation at GlaxoSmithKline.

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