No vision, no mission

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. –President John F. Kennedy speech at Rice University September 12, 1962


That quote from President Kennedy is one of my absolute favorites. The reason why is that in this quote (and the entire speech), Kennedy lays out the case for human space travel and does it extremely effectively. Setting aside the rhetorical expertise for a moment, Kennedy’s biggest impact is his vision: “We choose to go to the moon”.

Think about that for just a minute.

Leaders have problems getting followers, employees, even those closest to them to join them in going just about anywhere. Have you even been a part of a new system implementation, a go live, or even an office move? It’s hard to get people aligned to a vision of moving across the street let alone sending a man TO THE MOON!

In this speech, actually in this quote, Kennedy succinctly tell us “where” we are going and “why” we are going there. He articulates a vision that we will go to the moon, because it is a challenge that we are up for and need to meet, even though it is hard.

This quote was my first lesson in the power of vision and how having one is supremely vital in any organization. Leaders must articulate a vision and convince people that it is the right way to go and that they should be a part of it.

A popular saying in the non-profit world is, “no margin, no mission”. In other words, if your organization is not financially sustainable, it is not in a position where it can actually work to fulfill that organization’s mission. In my mind, the same lesson is true for a vision: “no vision, no mission”.

Without a clear vision, the organization is similarly not positioned to fulfill the mission. Without a vision, organizational alignment is nearly impossible to achieve. Lacking a clear vision allows everyone to interpret and act on the mission independently, not collaboratively with other team members. One employee may define an activity that advances the mission far different than another employee or even the way the “big boss” defines it. This is where organizations tend to drift, when the future is opaque and the bridge describing “how” we get from today’s reality to accomplishing the mission is undefined.

Groups of people, being countries or organizations, like to know where we are going. It is not only comforting, but helps people make sense of the actions you take as a leader. It changes the conversation from, “I don’t know why the boss is doing this. Maybe just to make my life more difficult” to “I can see how what the boss is doing fits into where we are going”. It gives purpose to work and an important destination to focus on.

There is popular literature on whether a vision should be for 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, etc. There is also much discussion of whether the vision should be attainable or aspirational. My advice: Don’t over-think it. Start with the ideal state. Define when you may realize that ideal state and the work backwards from there to create a strategy to attain it.

Success in leadership requires defining a vision of an inherently uncertain future to create meaning and alignment in an organization. Without those elements, organizations (countries, even) tend to drift. Do the work to create a vision and tell everyone about it. Don’t be shy. The next step is finding people to help bring it to reality. When you do that, then you will truly be a leader.

The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision -Theodore Hesburgh

KEY TAKEAWAY: Creating a vision of the future is a vital tool for leaders to add meaning and alignment for daily activities. Don’t overthink creating a vision, do your best work to develop an ideal state in the future and then create a map to achieve it. Work collaboratively to reach it. Good luck!