Mission, vision, and goals: the future—continuum. A lesson for leaders.

Most people don’t take the time to think systematically about the future. Leaders do. — Burt Nanus

Good leaders always think about the future of their organization and how it can be better than the present. They are obsessed with “seeing” that which does not exist. These “unseen improvements” are prompted by the mission of an organization and fleshed out through vision and goals.

Let’s start with definition of terms.  

  • Mission defines why the organization exists. It seldom changes and is usually never completed. It answers the question, “Why do we exist?” It is typically one sentence or a short paragraph. 
  • Vision gives the organization direction and defines its uniqueness (how it differs from other organizations with the same mission). It answers the question, “How will we fulfill our mission?” Vision is malleable and doable. An organization usually has multiple vision statements, all in support of the mission.
  • Goals are action steps that will ultimately help fulfill each vision statement. Goals usually include numbers and dates—metrics that can be measured.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a vision and a goal. For instance, consider each of these statements; is it a vision or a goal?

  • Get everyone in the U.K. online by the end of 2012 (Martha Fox’s statement when she was appointed the U.K.’s first digital champion).
  • Build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans (from Make It Right, a non-profit started by Brad Pitt). 
  • The United States should commit itself, before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. (President Kennedy, proposal to Congress on May 25, 1961)
  • In the next 24 months, double the amount of products we offer. 

I think each statement could be considered either a vision or a goal, and each will serve its organization well as long as it contributes toward the mission. View vision and goals as a continuum of activity. 

Vision and goals are similar because they both:

  • Address the future, not the past or present.
  • Aspire to a future that is better than the present.
  • Refer to things that can be accomplished, not just high ideals.

Vision and goals can differ in that:

  • Vision speaks to broader aspirations and may take longer to accomplish.
  • Goals are very concrete and most can be accomplished in months, not years.
  • Vision answers the question: What can we do that will make our organization effective? Goals answer the question: What can we do next to make our organization effective?

My main purpose in writing this post is to extol the value of goals and show their importance. They are, perhaps, the key element in the future-continuum of an organization (mission—vision—goals). 

Consider:

  • Without goals, mission and vision will not be accomplished. Once you’ve determined mission and vision, the work is yet to begin. There is a subtle but critical gap between vision and goals; if you don’t connect the two, your organization will stall.
  • Sometimes vision statements are elusive and difficult to codify, in which case goals can provide needed stimulus. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” When you’re fully engaged in an organization and see something you can do that will be beneficial, do it. The actions may even help clarify vision.
  • Sometimes valid vision statements become too familiar and common, which can lead to passivity. Goals will provide a sense of urgency and activate dormant resources. They serve as organizational steroids.
  • Consider the adage, “It’s easier to steer a moving ship than one that’s sitting in the dock.” Goals will get the organization “moving” and make steering easier. 
  • If goals are in sync with the mission, there is no downside to pursuing them. All resources required will be well spent.

As a leader, always be able to complete these sentences. 

Next week, our organization will make progress by ____________________.

In the next six months, our organization will make progress by ______________.

In the next two years, our organization will make progress by _______________.

Shorter time frames will be goals; longer time frames will sound more like vision. Both are healthy and will improve the organization.

10 Replies to “Mission, vision, and goals: the future—continuum. A lesson for leaders.”

  1. Great word today! All so true! I was watching one of your service broadcasts when Pastor Swindoll asked you this question: “Don, how far in advance do you plan the weekend services?” Your answer was probably shocking to many as it was much farther than most Music Pastors ever think. It was very convicting so thank you for that and thank you for another great post of encouragement and challenge! Well done as I enjoy all of your thoughts online!

    1. Stan, thanks for taking the time to write kind and encouraging words. Those things that must be done sooner or later are best done sooner.

  2. Mandatory stuff for successful organizations…mandatory stuff for successful people as well. It’s not a political statement when I say that too often the difference between the “haves” and “have nots” is vision, goals…maybe even personal “mission statements”. Without that a life usually lacks motivation, purpose or direction. Almost synonymous with laziness.

    You made me think…again. Thank you. I’ve done my share of corporate organization, but you somehow triggered my mind to people. Want your life to make a difference? It won’t happen without a vision and a goal.

    1. Neil, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I couldn’t agree more. I once heard, “you seldom drift to a good place”; it takes focus, planning and initiative.
      I’m curious, what is your background? You can email me at djmcminn@msn.com

  3. You taught me this about vision: “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion. “Bill Hybels. I always try to paint a picture that will energize the team.

  4. Great article Don. Too often people get hung up on terminology and as a result don’t act. The bottom line is that leaders make things better at all levels. We must have an answer to these questions.

    1. Thanks, Christopher. I’ve often heard you say “everything can be improved” and that’s the essence of mission, vision and goals – continuous incremental improvement.

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