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Unfortunately, any discussion about vision must begin with a glossary. People use terms in differing ways; sometimes as synonyms, sometimes with overlapping meaning and sometimes in ways contradicting other people’s usage.

Take the word mission for example. For some, it carries the idea of vision; for others it is the same as purpose. Still others see it as a strategic intent. The words are important, but the meaning is critical. The words goal or objective are often interchangeable, but some people are adamant that specific goals support broad objectives. Others feel just as strongly that the reverse is true. Who cares? A rose, is a rose, is a rose. . . What is essential is that everyone understands how the words are being used in each situation. That is why a glossary is so important.

For our purposes, I see the word mission as answering the question, “why do we exist?” The word values answers the question, “what do we believe and hold dear?” And vision answers the question, “what do we want to become?” Others define these differently, but for our purposes the answers to these three questions will give us the basis for the philosophical underpinnings that are crucial for an organization’s foundation.

What comes first – mission or values? Either can lead the way, but through a series of interactions, they both develop, grow and crystallize. Early in the life of any institution, the questions, “why do we exist?” and “what do we believe and hold dear?” must be addressed. The depth of the answers to these questions determines the height to which the organization may grow.

Strong, growing leaders answer the why question. Some wrestle deeply, struggling to articulate the foundational purpose of their organization. For others it is rather intuitive – they just know it. But the more clearly they can state why they exist, the more effective they will be in sharing their purpose with others and inspiring followers to action.

Most well-written mission statements have some action, a target group, and a resulting change. We want something to happen, to someone, for a desired result.

Pay attention to the verbs. The mission of XYZ institution is to ______. What fills that blank is critical. Is it to teach? Build? Grow? Change? Support? Make? Earn? Sell? Create? Help? What is it that you want to do?

Focus your attention on one segment of the population. You will probably not be able to help the whole world, at least not yet. Consider social designations such as families, couples,

women, or men. Consider special populations: blind, illiterate, military, pregnant, or business owners. Define the geographic constraints: Sioux Falls, Western Pennsylvania, rural East Texas or the Former Soviet Union. Consider age as well. Focus your efforts toward high school students, pre-school children, senior citizens, or adults.

The third aspect is results, and results always involve change. The desired result might be evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, healing, forgiveness, cooperation, healthy living, art appreciation, economic development, education, or strengthened families.

The more effective leaders are at articulating why their organization exists, the more effective they will be as decision makers. A clearly defined mission answers the daily questions of how to use the limited resources that God has provided. Having a clear, burning passion makes it easier to say no to the sometimes worthy distractions that can easily sidetrack individuals and institutions.

Besides a clear answer to, “why do we exist?”, the values question, “what do we believe and hold dear?” must also be addressed. Values can be both descriptive and prescriptive. Some describe the current culture of the institution and others prescribe what the organization wants to become.

To discover the organization’s existing values, ask a leader to tell you some highlights of the institution’s history. People talk about what is important to them. Do they talk about numerical growth? Building campaigns? Evangelism? Technological upgrades? Leaders launched into new careers? Financial stability? Risk? Lack of risk? What a leader shares is what is truly significant to him or her. Listen for values; listen deeply and ask yourself, “why is this leader telling me this?”

Values should also prescribe what we want to become. Leaders dream big dreams for both what they will accomplish and what they will become. Issues like authenticity, honesty, sacrifice, honor and respect may not be a part of the organization’s culture, but they can be if a leader commits to living his or her life in a way that exemplifies those values.

Say the organization suffers due to a lack of authenticity. Bad news is withheld rather than shared. Decisions are unchallenged. Mistakes are repeated. Blame is assigned. Praise is unshared. Those cultural behaviors don’t change overnight. But when leaders reward followers for sharing bad news and expressing honest opinions, new values begin to grow. When leaders openly praise moments of team success and objectively evaluate how things might have gone even better, followers follow.

Good, strong leaders not only dream about institutional growth, they want to grow with honor. And they want to nurture noble hearts in themselves and in those who follow. Growing leaders answer the questions, “why do we exist?” and “what do we believe and hold dear?” They answer these questions for their organizations, and they answer them for themselves.

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