Leadership 2: Vision, Values and Mission

This is the second article in a series on Leadership
(Click here for the first in the series)

The futureThere is much confusion about visions, values and mission statements, and some use the words interchangeably. Some writers tell us that vision and mission statements are oversold, while others would have us believe that they are the biggest single reason—along with business plans—why small businesses fail.

That is a point of view, which also helps sell books, but it’s not a particularly helpful approach. The terminology is not important, but the concepts themselves are. Whatever you call them, being able to articulate your vision, values and mission will make a world of difference to your team and your customers or stakeholders.

Put simply, your vision describes what you are passionate about, what you want to help achieve, what you believe the future could look like.

Your values describe the parameters, the boundaries of your journey — what you will or will not do in pursuit of the vision.

A mission narrows the focus of the vision and provides the context or framework within which the organisation functions. The vision may be generic—“An HIV-free world”—while your mission describes your company’s task within that vision—“Providing primary healthcare in rural KZN”.


“You begin with the end in mind, by knowing what you dream about accomplishing, and then figure out how you are going to achieve it.” Jim Pitts, Northrop Grumman Corporation. [i]

Dr Tererai Trent
In May 2011, Oprah Winfrey revealed her favourite guest of all time, Dr Tererai Trent, a Zimbabwean woman who was “not allowed to have an education”. She was married off at 11, had three children by 18, and her husband beat her every day. Yet she overcame it all to achieve her dreams. [See a video of her story here.]

In 1991, Jo Luck, the CEO of Heifer International, asked the women of Tererai’s village about their greatest dream. Tererai responded, “My name is Tererai, and I want to go to America to have an education, and I want to have a bachelor’s degree. I want to have a master’s, and I want to have a PhD.” Jo Luck looked at her and said, “If you desire those things, it is achievable.” And “It is achievable” became her motto. Against all the odds, she achieved all of her dreams, and more besides.

A vision is not merely a dream; there is a real expectation of success. Others may have laughed at Tererai Trent’s impossible dream—she couldn’t even get an education in her own village—but, for her, there was a real expectation of fulfilment: “it is achievable”.

Mark Manley writes: “The ancient explorers were inspired by the vision of what lay beyond the horizon…. Effective leaders will always focus on positive expectations for the future. They believe the journey is eminently possible and that the destination is assured.”[ii] 

Kouzes and Posner make the same point, “Envisioning the future is not about gazing into a fortune-teller’s crystal ball; it’s about paying attention to the little things that are going on all around … and being able to recognise patterns that point to the future.”[iii] 

It is not essential to have your vision written down before you start. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the detail that we fail to take the first steps.  But if we want others to follow us (if only a bank manager or a venture capitalist) we need to share our passion, and that is where a clearly written vision is essential.

As we discussed in the first article, the word “leader” implies followers. And the reason most of us follow a leader is because he or she will help us achieve our own dreams. Whether our dream is entirely selfish (the leader is going to make us rich), or altruistic (we are going to save the rhino together), it is the leader’s vision of the future that inspires followers. Being able to articulate a vision enables a leader to inspire others to share the journey.

Sometimes it is an easy task. A group of people share the same passion and will follow a leader who can put their passion into words and help them translate it into action.

More difficult is having to convince others of a vision of the future that challenges their own beliefs and practices. For example, a CEO has a vision for the organisation that requires a change of direction. He or she will have to persuade employees to share that vision and shareholders to invest in it.

A shared vision
But human beings are self-centred. We are not particularly interested in other people’s visions; we are concerned with our own aspirations. We want to know how our dreams will come true, how our hopes will be fulfilled. Effective leaders create a shared vision. They do more than envisage the future; they recognise how that vision can change people’s lives for the better, and they talk about those changes.

When effective sales people talk about their products, they don’t talk about the features, they explain the benefits. Instead of talking about the technology that allows their new camera to take 10 perfect pictures per second, they will say, “A birthday celebration for your child? Capture every expression.”

Steve Jobs could have explained the incredible technology Apple developed to digitise and miniaturise the music of our favourite artists. Instead he told us in six words how our lives would be changed: “A thousand songs in your pocket.” And we were hooked. His vision for the future became ours and everyone wanted an IPod.

What is your vision? Whether you are the leader of a team, a department or a company; whether you lead a community organisation or your family. What would the future look like if you had the opportunity and the means?

Please add any comments you may have below. 

(Next up: Values and mission statements)

See also:
Leadership: A journey begins (simplycommunicate.co.za) 

[i] quoted in Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition, p103
[ii] Mark Manley, The Leadership, 2012, p23 
[iii] Kouzes and Posner, p110

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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