Understanding the Critical Role of Mission, Vision, and Values in Leadership

Can individuals “recognize” the importance of mission, vision, and values through “indirect experience”? “Indirect experience” refers to learning from books, attending training or lectures, observing successful organizational practices, and so on. In contrast, “direct experience” involves forming a genuine understanding through personal hands-on practice.

My perspective is that, for most people, understanding the importance of mission, vision, and values requires “direct experience.”

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Moreover, what makes it challenging is that the “contexts” that provide “direct experience” for mission, vision, and values are often quite limited.

When a person is part of an organization in its early stages, they often feel a conflict between “mission” and “survival.” They may perceive mission, vision, and values as mere grandiose rhetoric, and some might even consider them toxic.

On the other hand, when a person is in an organization that already has well-established mission, vision, and values (such as organizations with a long history), they may take them for granted, thinking that they require no effort. It’s similar to a fish in water; it’s hard to realize the water’s importance. At such times, many people might see mission, vision, and values as mere empty words, seemingly distant and unimportant. Some may acknowledge their importance but still not fully understand why they matter.

Please note that when I say “having,” I mean genuinely having, not just having them on paper.

When a person transitions from an organization with a genuine mission, vision, and values to one lacking these elements, and experiences a significant contrast, they may finally “see” and “feel” the importance of mission, vision, and values.

However, “seeing” and “feeling” do not necessarily equate to truly “recognizing.”

If a person is at the grassroots or middle management level, and the “goals and strategy” are relatively clear, with daily work running smoothly, it’s easy for them to find a sense of achievement. They also have plenty of room for personal development. In such cases, even if they can “see” and “feel” the issues related to mission, vision, and values, they often perceive them as “their” problems and not directly relevant to themselves. Moreover, the key factor is that there’s no real pain involved.

It’s only when a person is at the top management level and the organization lacks a clear mission, vision, and values that they can truly feel the pain caused by the absence of these elements. Additionally, because they are in a leadership position, they cannot shift the responsibility for the organization’s lack of mission, vision, and values entirely onto others. This combination of feeling the pain and having a sense of responsibility provides them with direct, tangible experience, allowing them to genuinely recognize the importance of mission, vision, and values.

Especially when a person is in an organization that once had a proud mission, vision, and values but is slowly and inevitably deteriorating, they can deeply appreciate not only the importance but also the urgency of these elements.

Reflecting on the past, over two thousand years ago, when Confucius lamented, “When the music and ceremonies are destroyed, laws become corrupt,” it must have been a deeply painful and sorrowful realization. Without such profound personal experiences, how can a person truly recognize the importance of mission, vision, and values? It’s no wonder that Confucianism places such great importance on sage rulers and virtuous leaders.

Of course, if an organization has already collapsed, been defeated by competitors, or ravaged by external forces, both grassroots and middle management will generally recognize the importance of mission, vision, and values. However, in such dire situations where the momentum is already lost, most people are preoccupied with self-preservation and escape. Discussing mission, vision, and values at such times may seem out of touch with reality.

When a person is in a leadership position and perceives the absence or gradual collapse of an organization’s mission, vision, and values, but it hasn’t reached the point of collapse or external devastation, it is still a “recoverable” situation.

In such circumstances, these senior leaders may experience the following emotions and behaviors. Please note that this is a speculative description, and readers can draw their own parallels:

  • An overwhelming sense of powerlessness: Witnessing employees harmed by malevolence and deception, yet feeling compelled to remain silent.
  • Lack of clear standards of right and wrong, only unpredictable leadership preferences.
  • Repeatedly wanting to speak out but hesitating.
  • Compelled to endure for self-preservation and personal gain.
  • Pretending to be content while experiencing evident disharmony and discord within the team.
  • Witnessing opportunistic behavior, exploitation, and short-term profiteering.
  • Observing those adept at manipulation, opportunists, and those who prioritize personal gain.
  • Occasionally experiencing the gratification and guilt of going along with the flow.
  • Resorting to unethical means and shortcuts when setting “goals and strategies.”
  • Truly feeling how “goals and strategies,” seemingly unified on the surface, disintegrate in execution without mission, vision, and values as a foundation.
  • Becoming embroiled in petty office politics and having to play along.
  • Putting in minimal effort, performing superficial actions, pretending to be committed, being two-faced, and feeling torn.
  • Difficulty finding genuine joy and a sense of meaning.
  • Self-deception, numbness, and the desire to escape.
  • Those unable to escape inwardly praying for a storm to come and destroy it all.

It’s only when a person in a leadership position experiences these perceptions and pains that they can truly “recognize” the importance of mission, vision, and values.

In the context of mission, vision, and values, the perceptions and experiences of top leadership (often referred to as the “number one” or “top leadership”) can indeed be quite different from those of senior executives and other levels of management.

Mission, vision, and values are a fundamental necessity for top leadership, but not necessarily a pressing concern for every top leader or CEO. As long as the organization is experiencing growth or hasn’t collapsed, top leadership can often find enough reasons to justify their leadership as sound and rational.

One of the crucial roles of mission, vision, and values is to provide checks and balances on the power of top leadership. This balance, to a large extent, must come from the proactive commitment of top leadership to these principles, which in turn limits their scope for exercising authority.

It could be said that mission, vision, and values are one of the most important products and services that top leadership must provide to their organization. Without them, there would be a lack of basic rules, especially among the senior leadership. Middle management and grassroots employees also benefit from these principles, but it may not be as critical. Top leadership can use goals and rewards to maintain control over them, and short-term satisfaction among these groups can sometimes pacify senior leaders. Furthermore, middle management and grassroots employees often have limited influence in such matters. Even if they vote with their feet (i.e., leave the organization), it might not cause significant ripples.

What is the purpose and significance of revealing this understanding?

Firstly, it serves as a reminder to top leadership that the perceptions and behaviors of senior executives are important indicators of whether they have provided satisfactory products and services in terms of mission, vision, and values. While goals and strategies provide short-term measurements for top leadership, mission, vision, and values are the mid-to-long-term yardsticks. Focusing solely on goals and strategies while neglecting mission, vision, and values can lead an organization down the path to deterioration.

Secondly, it emphasizes the sense of responsibility and role of senior leaders in the context of mission, vision, and values. If you, as a senior leader, have experienced some of the feelings and behaviors mentioned earlier, don’t take it lightly or let it pass naturally. You are the primary evaluators of whether the organization lacks mission, vision, and values. Your present experiences shape the organization’s future. You bear significant responsibility for the organization’s lack of mission, vision, and values. If you don’t take action on this matter, middle management and grassroots employees can do little except feel frustrated. Don’t think it’s solely the responsibility of the top leader; even top leaders need help, influence, and structural pressure. Therefore, you can make some proactive efforts.

However, at this stage, your proactive efforts only address the issues of role perception, willingness, and courage. Your proactive efforts mark the beginning of a new round of “recognition upgrade.” The next challenge is how to further elevate your understanding through practical implementation. Evaluating others is easy; changing and shaping an organization’s mission, vision, and values from within is much more challenging. When faced with growth pressures and competition, under less than ideal conditions at the top leadership level, how do you go about transforming and shaping the organization’s mission, vision, and values?

Once you’ve engaged in multiple rounds of practical efforts, some successful and some not, and even some failures, then you can truly “recognize” what “mission, vision, and values” mean in practice.

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