Leadership Question #6: Which is Most Important—Mission, Core Values or Vision?

Continuing in my series of “20 Leadership Questions,” we come to the sixth question that Michael Smith asked when he interviewed me. This one is related to something very near and dear to me.

A Compass with Map Background - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/DNY59, Image #7346114

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/DNY59

Michael asked,

Which is most important to your organization—mission, core values or vision?”

This is a little bit like trying to answer which sense is more important—sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch? The truth is that they are all important.

At Thomas Nelson, our core ideology is comprised of four key elements. These are distinguishable but inseparable. It’s a little bit like talking about an orange. You can distinguish its shape, its color, its size, and its smell and taste. However, you can’t do away with any of these attributes and still have an orange. So it is with your organization’s core ideology.

Here’s how I define each element and roughly the priority I assign to each.

  1. Purpose. Every organization has a purpose. That purpose may be clear or vague. It may be conscious or unconscious, written or unwritten. Some purpose statements are specific and inspiring, while others are vague and uninspiring. Regardless, no organization is ever formed—or continues to exist—without some sort of purpose. It is worth taking time to answer the question, “Why do we exist?”
  2. Values. Values are the ideals that we esteem as a company. They are the philosophical foundation of our corporate ideology. They are the things that we hold dear and use to make decisions and keep us on-track. They are what we believe—no matter what. However, if they are to be more than mere platitudes, we must translate our values into specific behaviors that we expect from one another.
  3. Vision. Having a clear vision of where you are going is crucial in any human endeavor. This is especially true when it comes to organizations. Unless we know where we are going, it is difficult to select the best route, assign the necessary resources, or create any semblance of organizational alignment.
  4. Strategy. Once you have a clear vision about where you are going, you can formulate a strategy for getting there. The best strategy is generally the one that gets you to your destination the fastest with the most efficient use of resources. However, some strategies work well in the short-term, but at the expense of the organization’s values or purpose. That’s why we can’t really select the right strategy until we know why we exist (purpose), what we believe (values), and where we are going (vision).

To be effective, all four of these should be written down. At Thomas Nelson, this process literally took us two years. (But even now, we are continuing to fine-tune and polish.) Periodically, we review these components and assess our activities against them.

Questions: Does your organization have a written ideology? Do you include similar elements? more? less? How have they helped your organization?
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  • http://twitter.com/whats_yourstory @whats_yourstory

    Great post! I believe it is critical for each of us to focus on these four areas and regularly re-visit them! All of these come into play when we reflect on our stories (our experiences) from that we will define each element.

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  • http://bigisthenewsmall.com Sott Williams

    Great Post… At LifeChurch.tv, Pastor Craig does and excellent job of revisiting and redefining these periodically at our all-staff events.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      We’re going away soon for a retreat, where we will look at these exact things.

  • http://twitter.com/BrettInsurance @BrettInsurance

    I suppose it might also be a good idea for me, not necessarily in leadership per se, to develop these four in my small spheres of influence: my sales niche and my family. It would be a great exercise for me and my wife. It would be a great exercise to focus my efforts at work on the things that bring value to my organization and the types of clients who really could benefit from my services.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. That’s how I got started. I defined these things for the department I was running—and then kept doing it as I got more responsibility.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

      This is an excellent point and could probably be a post unto itself: applying the core ideology approach not only to your business or teams, but to your life as well. Thanks for sharing.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        Absolutely. I do some of that in my Creating a Life Plan post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bjmorrell Brandon Morrell

    Thanks Michael. Starting my own business, and I took a few minutes to jot down my mission, core values and vision. It helped me consolidate my thoughts and give me a methodical way to approach the many hats of a small business owner.

    Love your posts. I've been reading for a long time, but it's about time to begin interacting!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Brandon. I appreciate you taking time to speak up!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    While the terminology is a little different, all four core elements are important in education. This summer I am going to solidify them for the courses I'll be teaching next school year. Also, these core elements are also basic to writing and publishing a book. Without purpose, values, vision, and strategy, a book could remain nothing but random thoughts strung together.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

    Great post Michael – you have a real talent for distilling broad topics to a concise set of core components.

    I believe you have these components of a core ideology in the right order. So far, for ModernServantLeader.com, I've only developed the purpose. However, my next steps will be to define the Values, Vision and Strategy, in that order. Thank you for helping to frame the approach.

  • David

    Michael, are you able to share Thomas Nelson’s Purpose, Values and Vision with us?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, they are actually online now, but I am reformatting to fit my current blog design. Stay tuned …

  • http://www.creatingnewworlds.org Carl Townsend

    I've benn told that core values are defined first. That doesn't mean they are the most important, but does mean that they define the constraints out of which the mission and vision must operate. Once the core values are lost, so is the vision, mission, and leadership.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think this is a toss-up. In my experience, people come together to do something, then—assuming it is somewhat successful—start asking the values question. However, you could argue that people are first attracted based on value and the mission comes out of that. Either way, both are important.

  • http://marcmillan.tumblr.com Marc Millan

    I really love this post, super clear and outlined. thank you for sharing.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/halhunter halhunter

    #1 are our values. These are the things we will always do, or that we will never do, regardless. Our values are set by character, faith, and beliefs, and secondly by the norms of the system in which we operate.

    #2 is purpose. Everything begins there, after we define the constraints of our values. It might be to sell books, or to sell automobiles, or to further the Gospel.

    #3 is vision. Vision defines what you want to accomplish in terms of your purpose. Purpose defines your vision. If your purpose is to sell books, a vision of creating great automobiles makes no sense.

    #4 is strategy. These are the steps you will take, and the order in which you will take them, to make the vision reality. As an aside, tactics are the flexible implementations of strategic plans, which tend to be more fixed.

  • http://davidbmclaughlin.com davidbmc

    I deeply appreciate that you actually answered the question and prioritized them yet acknowledged the importance of each. So many times leaders won't answer a question such as that because they are afraid someone will disagree with their answer. I may in fact disagree with your ranking but I appreciate you having the guts to not wimp out and refuse to answer the question.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/theryanjenks theRyanJenks

    Personally I have a mission statement and a vision statement. And I have woven in the values but the strategy part is missing. I need to revisit.

    The other crucial part of these elements is the memorable-ness portability and the revisit. Are they easily to remember, portable to speak them at the drop of a hat and are they in places (physically and mentally) where we revisit them often?

    Solid stuff Michael!!

    • http://twitter.com/BobEwoldt Robert Ewoldt

      My wife and I have a mission statement and vision statement for our marriage and family. I think it helps us to organize and prioritize our lives (it helps us to know what to say “No” to).

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/kaikunane ThatGuyKC

    I really admire how you defined the elements of an ideology into four parts which are commonly misused by organizations.

    During my limited tenure in corporate America it's amazing how often vision, strategy and mission are misunderstood.

  • Robert

    There are many people in many companies, executives and managers especially, that don't understand the importance of Mission, Core Values, and Vision.
    While working on a project with a former executive from Bear Sterns, he said that all that core value and vision stuff was just a lot of ' tree-hugging, California-talk'. He actually said, "When one of my people came to me and asked 'What is my purpose here?' I told her that her purpose was to earn her paycheck."
    This conversation took place after that company collapsed.
    Thank you for articulating Mission, Vision, and Core Values in this blog.

  • Rev. Ryan M.

    Today's Dilbert comic ties in perfectly with this post! Check it out at http://dilbert.com/strips/ look for the July 3, 2010 strip. If you go today, it's at the very top.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That is priceless!

  • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com Bradley J. Moore

    I spent 15 years as a strategy consultant prior to my position at the company I am with now. So, all that time I spent working with companies on these exact issues. The biggest problem I saw was the mix-up with semantics- like, what's the difference between a "purpose" and a "mission" and a "vision"? Most people would mash together all three of them together, and it could get confusing. You've done a nice job here of defining each one clearly. I have found that orgainzations who carefully approach these questions do come out with a greater sense of clarity about what they are trying to do or to become. It also helps the exec team to ensure everyone is on the same page, and revealing where everyone's heads are at. Sometimes the process of going through this exercise is more beneficial than the outcome!

    One thing that you did not include is the performance metrics, which is the most important tool to tell whether or not your team is actually executing on all of those great strategy ideas. Strategy without execution is worthless.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, we include those but as a separate but related thing. We distinguish between ideology (the “being” side) and execution (the “doing” side). Both are essential. Thanks.

  • http://www.mediaplug.biz Nicole

    Your post made me start thinking and has ultimately lead to a new line on my To-Do List. Our company is only two years old and we don't have a clearly defined Purpose, Values, Vision or Strategy. Our business has been successful thus far without them but it would be nice for us all to "be on the same page" so to speak.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • http://www.sauderworship.com Church Furniture

    Great post , thanks for sharing! To have solid core values is most important, in my opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/_jamesshaw @_jamesshaw

    Let me point the finger for a moment knowing that I'm speaking to myself as much as anyone else ;-)

    Give me break! Take a stand. These "all of them are important" articles need to stop! I have written them in the past so I'm completely guilty. But really, who are we helping?

    I read the headline and had an answer within moments. I let my heart decide not my head. (It seems the heart knows things way faster. Perhaps because the brain over-complicates things?)

    Values must come first to drive the others. It's implicitly more important.
    Then Mission/Purpose in the present.
    Then set the future with Vision.

    I think simple is often better, but in this age of unlimited information we seem addicted to the complicated answers. I mean, 2 years to formulate your Purpose, Values, Vision & Strategy? Seriously? I bet your answers to those questions in the first 30mins got you 90% there. ;-)


    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      It took you five paragraphs to say that? ;-)

  • http://www.dialect.com/blog Andy Kanefield


    We've been working on how leaders prioritize their ideology for 7 years at Dialect. We approach it from an identity standpoint, so we're also looking to make sure that your "signature strength" (brand essence) is aligned with your 4 elements and that you know who your audience is. When those 6 elements are working together, your company is "in sync".

    We find that because people are wired differently, they filter what they look for when looking at what your company stands for. The same thing goes for leaders who tend to emphasize one or two elements over the rest.

    I'll send you our book called Uncommon Sense to see if it resonates.


    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I like this model. It sounds very interesting.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/mitchebie Mitch Ebie

    (Referring to your first question) Core values are the most important; they are the cornerstone. A vision, mission, purpose or strategy will not necessarily support core (godly) values. All of those things are important but they will come up short or they could very easily be skewed without values. Without values, strategy, mission and purpose could lead a purpose to pursue money, power, and glory. Core values will, ideally, lead a person towards helping others and glorifying God…which can also be very good for business.

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  • http://www.pauldyer.com Dr Paul Dyer

    To steal a bit from Jim Collins, it's important to distinguish between “what is sacred, and what is not sacred.” Our purpose and values are sacred, they will not change. However, we should be willing to change our strategy anytime the world changes, or when we identify a different strategy that will move us towards the fulfillment of our vision more effectively or more efficiently. So often, and to our detriment, we do the opposite. We compromise our core ideology, our purpose and values, but refuse to adjust our strategy.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Agreed. I distinguished between values, purpose, vision, strategy, here.

    • http://twitter.com/BobEwoldt Robert Ewoldt

      I agree, Paul. And you can do this in your life, as well as in your organization (because leadership is also about leading yourself). You can ask yourself, “What are the things in my life that will not change?” And, “What are the things that will change?”

  • http://twitter.com/kevinjkidd Kevin Kidd

    I think the answer to which is most important…core values, purpose, vision and strategic planning…says more about the individual answering than anything else. I’m a visionary leader and so, I’ve always believed that vision is the most important. I need direction before I can consider questions about core values (how), purpose (why), or strategic planning.

    I need vision and then I can answer the core value question…how am I going to get there? What values are important enough to serve as left and right parameters along my journey. One might say, “Without a vision people cast off core values.”

    I need vision and then I can answer the purpose question…why am I going in this direction?

    And of course I need vision before I can begin breaking down the journey in bite size chunks that come during the strategic planning phase.

    That’s my two cents!
    Thanks for your articles Michael!