This is a question that comes up a lot in the work I do with business teams as I coach them to be mission driven on a day to day basis. Why be mission driven? So they never lose sight of their greater purpose for existing in the first place.

Without the unwavering focus on mission and vision it’s much too easy to get mired in the day to day routine — which businesses are chock full of.

Without mission and vision, businesses are boring.

At times I run across companies which don’t bother to distinguish them at all: They have a separate Values Statement (thank goodness), but if you ask them to tell you of their Vision, and then of their Mission, they’ll give you the same answer for both questions. So what is the difference? Does it matter?

The short answer is that it only matters if you use them. Vision Statements and Mission Statements can be power-packed drivers in a company culture when they are done right, and when they are used to release the potent energy within the people who make up that company. (Don’t for a moment think that companies are made up of anything else.) The best missions and visions become mantras for action; they’re catalysts. The worst ones are those pretty, carefully crafted ones up on the walls in frames that are long and detailed: too much to memorize and remember, too much to bother with at all. No one pays attention to them, and no one lives them. Rotate them with famous quotations or snippets from eloquent speeches and no one will even notice, because none of the real people in the company say those things.

That old guideline that a mission describes “what business you’re in and who your customer is” barely gets anyone up in the morning. Ho hum. Keep the trees in the ground, for it’s not worth wasting the paper you draft it on.

You don’t need your mission or your vision to state the obvious; you want them to state the exceptional and extraordinary, to boast of your edge-teetering leaps of faith, and the wild dreamings of every possibility you want explored every single day. You need them to create chatter, thrilled whispers, passionate debate and evangelism. You want people inside and outside your organization to talk about them constantly because they’re fascinating, enticing, and enthralling. You couldn’t possibly contain their passion on the company bulletin board if you tried.

Let them be controversial. Let them beg discussion and explanation. They should answer these better questions: How will we make a difference every single day, improving the quality of life itself? How can we work on only what really matters to us, and to everyone? Why is it that this world can’t possibly be a great place without the magic we work? Why is it that we are so special, so damned good, and so fanatically courageous? Put unbusiness-like words in them, like Beauty. Uprising. Character. Notoriety. Caring. Wear your values on your sleeve and speak them.

So what’s the difference? As simply as I can say it, your mission is what you do best every day, and your vision is what the future looks like because you do that mission so exceedingly well. In fact, I like to compare them to another old debate: management versus leadership.

For MISSION —– think: managing with greatness and untamed strength, improving everything daily.

For VISION —– think: leading with inspiration and courage, obsessed with future possibility, in a love affair with change.

MISSION will feed into the confidence of your organization by feeding this ever-present self-talk: “We can do this, and we are the ones ordained to do this, for we are the best at it.” Mission will churn out revolutionary ideas about the mundane, banishing mediocrity.

VISION creates that momentum of growing anticipation about the future, where change is embraced as a step closer to that very compelling picture of what’s coming next. The excitement about the future trumps any apprehension about the uncertain — change is recognized as the catalytic converter it is.

Turn them both into mantras that people actually say, beaming with pride as they say them. “This is my company, and I’m glad it is” is the emotion they evoke, shining in everyone’s eyes. Both mission and vision are alive; both evolve, both reinvent, both grow as you grow.

So tear down that plaque on the wall; you really don’t need it. Trumpet the voices of mission and vision instead.

Thank you for reading, I’ll be back next Thursday. On every other day, you can visit me on Talking Story, or on www.ManagingWithAloha.com. Aloha!

Rosa Say

Previous Thursday Column: On Ho‘ohiki: Keeping your promises.

Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawaii’s Universal Values to the Art of Business

Love this article?