John Tyler and Mission

How to avoid being the worst president

Mission statements get a bad rap from workers and middle-management. They’re usually vague and banal. I was thinking about this last weekend when I ran across Cracker Barrel’s “Brand Promise”-cum-mission:

Cracker Barrel’s mission is Pleasing People. We operate within the ideals of fairness, mutual respect and equal treatment of all people.

Congratulations. You’re on a mission of not being a jerk.

But what happens when you’re not hinged to a vanilla platitude? This whole country had one once. Manifest destiny.

In case you were asleep in 7th-grade history class, manifest destiny was a popular operating sentiment in the 1840s. The national belief was that westward expansion wasn’t just ours for the taking, it was inevitable. Manifest destiny rekindled a sense of purpose and mission in Americans. It was up to us to expand freedom and democracy. This was driven by politics. Non-European and native Americans were a problem and incapable of self-governance. It was also driven by commerce. A couple national recessions pushed many Americans back on to the frontier, where land was a lucrative source of self-reliance and income. It allowed people to expand and the country gave them room to do so.

In 1840 Martin van Buren was defeated as President by William Henry Harrison (Indiana’s territorial governor between 1800-1812, and president for a month. His grandson, Benjamin, would become President in 1889). After Harrison’s death, John Tyler became President.

It’s almost inarguable he’s in the top ten worst presidents. He was born into wealth from a family plantation, was a defender of slavery, started his career as a Republican against “internal improvements” as it was called then, and later switched to the Whig party to run with Harrison. He then reneged on everything his party stood for, vetoing most of their agenda. Markets were in chaos and unclear. Harrison’s cabinet resigned and abandoned him.

For a brief period, Americans were without a sense of justifiable purpose.

No nation or organization can exist without some sense of greater purpose. Companies try for this all the time but the vanilla ones usually don’t go far. Or if they do, they change their mission once they become big enough to be noticed. No one wants to handle the pressure of pushback for otherwise worthwhile goals.

The country is surely in the same situation today. Our borders are locked, there are not too many places we seem willing to “spread freedom” to anymore, and it’s not easy for people to up and “improve their lot” by going 100 miles in one direction for a literal new lot.

There is no “Make America Great Again”, just as Burger King isn’t going to say, “Make the Whopper more like a Big Mac”. It’s backward, ineffectual, and intellectually bankrupt.

If you’re a company or organization seeking expansion, you could do well by recognizing your own manifest destiny, so long as it’s true to the word: obvious and intent, forward-looking, and difficult but achievable. It’s also risky. Something most people and some regions of the country aren’t culturally built for. I think midwesterners and southerners are risk-averse to a fault and being left behind economically compared to the coasts. You may not be able to swing a country’s purpose, but you can swing your own, at least a little bit.

And how did John Tyler’s presidency end? Tyler had to defend against impeachment and was ultimately expelled from the party. Not even his wife supported him. Sound familiar?

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