Mission & Vision: What Every Leader Needs to Know

In the wake of what has been both a fascinating and disturbing UK General Election, I’d like to share my definitions of those favourite organisational buzzwords, Mission and Vision, and why they are (still) fundamentally important to leadership success.

A couple of weeks ago, I got involved with a Twitter debate with business guru Tom Peters – always provocative, Tom opined that “Vision is pretentious” and went on to state:

I leave vision bit to Jesus/Muhammad. I’m just humble toiler trying to understand people in organisations.”

I replied with my definitions of both “Vision” and “Mission” – definitions I’ve used productively, working with and within senior leadership teams in many organisations:

Mission: “Why are we in business?”

Vision: “What value do we offer to our customers?”

I believe it’s basically that simple:

Mission is all about our business strategy, objectives, targets and what we want to achieve as a result of being in business. (That may, and should, include personal objectives.)

Vision is all about customers. Another great business guru Peter Drucker said:

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

In my definition, therefore, Vision is all about how to do that. Vision must make meaning for the customer, and for the target customer. Vision, then, is the story you tell – the story that has the customer in it. Customers must be able to see themselves having a meaningful interaction/relationship with your organisation; one that adds value; one that enhances their lives.

And, as Tom Peters pointed out, later in the Twitter debate:

In 2017, vision/mission/purpose should include commitment to employee development. (If customer to be first, employee must be ‘more first.’)”

In other words, when you are developing/delivering your Vision, remember that (a) it is all about your customers, and (b) your primary customers are your employees!

Image: modernsouvenir.com

So what does this have to do with the General Election?

In my communication work and workshops, I often quote former US Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell:

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

I argue that, to understand some of the electoral turmoil of recent times, we must recognise the fact that it’s the best storyteller who wins (or at least, does far better than expected):

Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon won a landslide victory in 2015 with her Vision of Scottish independence;

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage maneuvered Prime Minister David Cameron into pledging a referendum on EU membership, with his Vision of a more successful, “independent” UK;

In the EU referendum itself, Farage and other “Brexiteers” including current UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson achieved a “leave” vote with their Vision of a funding boost for the National Health Service;

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn won two leadership elections, and achieved an unexpected surge in support at the 2017 General Election, with his Vision of a country “For the many, not the few”.

Now, I am not commenting on the rights or wrongs of these Visions; just that they were clear, coherent, and above all, placed the electorate/customers at the heart of the story.

Put another way, their opponents largely went on Mission (why are we doing this?) – for example:

The EU “Remain” campaign wanted the UK to stay in the EU – but it couldn’t put forward any compelling reasons why people’s lives would be better if we did. Instead, the campaign was characterised as “Project Fear”.

Prime Minister Theresa May wanted to remain as Prime Minister (her Mission) – but her “Vision” was little more than a series of slogans: her “Strong and Stable Leadership” versus the threat of a “Coalition of Chaos”.

And Nicola Sturgeon’s earlier Vision had turned into a naked Mission (to hold another referendum to achieve Scottish independence), which no longer resonated with voters who wanted to know how the SNP would enhance their daily lives.

Now of course, there’s more to it than that: elections and their outcomes are rarely black and white. It’s clear, however, that the electorate (that’s people/customers to you and me) fundamentally demand hope, not fear, and a story that is about them, not their elected representatives.

In summary then:

Mission is about “you”.

Vision is about “them”.

To succeed, you need both – and you mustn’t get them mixed up!

If you’d like to know more about my POSITIVE strategy and communication workshops, do get in touch.  And if you’d like to find out how to communicate with and create world class experiences for your customers, why not read my eBook “Managing Customer Experience in The Networked Age”?

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