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What’s in a mantra?

I love a good mantra. We hear lots these days from internal comms and HR professionals about mission, vision, values and such but in truth, a good mantra is hard to beat and can often take the place of all that cuddly guf.

I worked at NIKE for a while. NIKE had the ultimate mantra: Just Do It. This was a verbatim derivation of CEO Phil Knight’s response to a manager who expressed his nervousness when handed a couple of air tickets to Beijing: “we need to grow business in China” Phil said. “Don’t screw it up”. This was a typical Phil Knight brief. He was a great fan of entrepreneurial types in the early days but he understood that his style wasn’t for everyone. Hence Just Do It, which he meant as encouragement: leave your doubts behind, take a deep breath and jump.

It’s no surprise to me that what started as an internal mantra became an advertising end-line. It is logical that strong brands appeal to their various groups of stakeholders for similar reasons and communicate with them using common language. NIKE’s customers and staf were the same people: sporty types, motivated to achieve.

Of course at NIKE, one mantra was never enough. We had loads. I quite like There is no finish line, meant to encapsulate the spirit of restless competitiveness that defines great athletes and businessmen alike. And The team that makes the most mistakes wins, which encouraged we entrepreneurial types to push the boundaries and banish fear of failure.

...leave your doubts behind, take a deep breath and jump.

I moved from NIKE to Williams F1, where we adopted a corruption of a quotation from Darwin as a mantra: it’s not the big that eat the small, it is the quick that eat the slow. This is highly relevant to Williams’ business objective, which is to build cars that go as fast as possible. But it also adds a consequence of failure and summarises the competitive pressures under which the team operates.




 At some stage – I can’t recall exactly when – I came across the great Adam Morgan who followed up his book ‘Eating the Big Fish’ with ‘The Pirate Inside’, a further exploration of the means and benefits of building a challenger culture. In here, I found another mantra, possibly my favourite of them all: it’s more fun to be a pirate than it is to join the Navy. This never fails to raise a smile and remind me that it’s OK to zag when others are zigging. Cultural disruptions can often benefit the culture being disrupted.

it’s more fun to be a pirate than it is to join the Navy.

The reasons I like these examples are the reasons I like all great mantras:

1. They inspire. A great mantra is a motivating, inspirational thought which, when referred to, has a positive efect;

2. They encapsulate. Great mantras are short and to the point, but contain a wealth of meaning; and

3. They have a story behind them. There’s a specific reason to relate to a mantra, based on its relevance to the reader’s situation.

This final point occurred to me the other day when ordering a new iPhone. Anxious to take advantage of Apple’s free engraving offer, ignoring the fact that it would make my new phone un-eBayable when I eventually upgrade it, I sat in front of the order page wracked with indecision as to what to have engraved. What would inspire, encapsulate, remind me of a story with particular relevance to me, yet not make me seem weird to the casual observer (for this is another quality of all great mantas: they must not be embarrassing).

In the end, I plumped for le mieux est l’ennemi du bien, a Voltaire quotation that reminds me to work tirelessly in pursuit of the best result possible. Pretentious? Moi? Perhaps… but in my quest for the perfect mantra, I feel I’ve made a huge leap forward.